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Think outside toy box to find hazards

Old paint on the wall and small playthings such as rubber balls pose a much greater threat than recalled products, experts say

September 23, 2007|Abigail Goldman | Times Staff Writer

Parents scoured children's playrooms and retailers scurried to clear their shelves after manufacturers ordered a series of recalls this summer, saying millions of popular toys may have been made with lead paint.

But the risk of lead poisoning is as strong as ever, experts say; it's just that the biggest threat probably isn't in the toy box.

Children are at greater risk of lead poisoning from living in a home with deteriorating old paint, or one that is going through a remodel, than they are from most toys, according to federal tallies. Toys with lead paint don't even pose the biggest threat among playthings.

Lead paint has been banned in the U.S. since 1978, but older homes typically have layers of the dangerous wall covering beneath newer coats. In good condition and left undisturbed, the lead paint poses little threat. But after it's chipped or begins creating dust, the danger grows.

"By far and away historically, the major concern about sources for lead has been your home," said Dr. Helen Binns, a professor of pediatrics and preventive medicine at Northwestern University's medical school.

"You may handle your toy for a few moments a day, but if you're in a home going through remodeling, you generate dust throughout your whole house," Binns said. "So you're exposed everywhere you go, not just when you're playing."

Lead paint on toys still poses some risk, health officials say. But when it comes to toys, the biggest dangers don't come from the paint on a truck, train or doll.

Instead, the deadliest playthings are among the oldest and simplest: balloons and small rubber balls or marbles.

"I think people don't always worry about the right things," said Dr. Garry Gardner, chairman of the American Academy of Pediatrics' committee on injury, violence and poison prevention.

He says that is partly because there is so much for parents to worry about: "Is their child in a properly fastened car seat? Do they have a smoke detector and a carbon monoxide detector working? Is their hot water heater turned down so that there isn't a scalding risk? Do they have a pool that isn't fenced on all four sides?

"It's hard telling parents to relax a bit," Gardner said.

A wave of recalls

Although there have been fewer toy recalls so far this year than for the same period in 2006, the millions of toys deemed unsafe this summer struck a nerve with consumers and thus with manufacturers, retailers and politicians.

Part of the heightened concern stems from timing.

Last winter, thousands of pets were sickened or killed because of tainted Chinese ingredients used to make animal foods. Over the following months, toothpaste, tires, fish and other products imported from China also were recalled on safety grounds.

So by the time RC2 Corp. in June recalled 1.5 million Chinese-made Thomas & Friends wooden train toys because of lead paint, Americans had plenty of reason to be concerned about Chinese products.

Those fears were amplified in August when Mattel Inc. -- the world's largest toy maker -- launched a series of recalls of Chinese-made goods.

The question for some in pediatric medicine is whether worry about imported lead paint obscures equal or greater perils much closer to home.

In 2005, the most recent year for which data are available, 20 children younger than 15 died from toy-related injuries, according to the federal Consumer Product Safety Commission.

Nine children -- ages 15 months to 8 years old -- died after choking on toys. Six of them died after swallowing balls that blocked their airways. One breathed in a balloon or part of a balloon. One died after swallowing a bead from a toy horse, and one choked on a toy dart.

Ball-shaped objects are particularly dangerous, said Dr. Gary Smith, director of the Center for Injury Research and Policy at the Columbus, Ohio, Children's Hospital.

"If you took the best engineers in the world and asked them to design a perfect plug for a child's airway, you couldn't do much better than a round rubber ball," Smith said. "It's airway-sized, it's airway-shaped and it will wedge itself in so that it is very hard to dislodge and will completely block the airway."

Balloons also have long been a hazard with the potential for terrible consequences, Smith said. The danger lies in a child blowing up a latex balloon and breathing it in by mistake, or swallowing a balloon or part of a popped balloon.

"Balloons tend to drape themselves over the top of the voice box like shrink wrap; there's a suction that's created," Smith said. "It will conform to the shape of the entrance of the larynx and will completely block off the airway."

The most serious of this summer's toy problems, Smith said, has nothing to do with lead either. Mattel recalled more than 18 million magnetic toys worldwide -- not because of a production problem in China but because of a design flaw that could have allowed the magnets to become detached from the toy, making them a danger if swallowed.

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