• When buying toys that contain textiles or leather garments, be conscious of "azo dyes," which are widely used in the textile and leather industries. Azo dyes can form cancer-causing compounds when inhaled, absorbed through the skin or taken up by the gastrointestinal tract. Unfortunately, since these chemicals are not regulated, the best way to avoid them is to select toys made of wood and natural products, or toys that bear eco-labels, which are becoming more widespread. When buying a textile product such as a doll or stuffed animal, look for a European eco-label such as Oeko-Tex, which can be found in some specialty toy stores. The European Union has much stricter regulations on toxic chemicals than does the U.S.
• Choking on toys, toy parts, balls and balloons is a hazard for children younger than 3. From 1990 to 2007, 196 children died after choking or asphyxiating on a toy or toy part,, according to U.S. PIRG, an umbrella consumer-advocacy organization for individual state Public Interest Research Groups. Use an empty toilet paper roll to test whether a toy or toy part may be a choking hazard. If the item passes through a toilet paper roll, it is too small for children younger than 3 or children who put toys in their mouths.
Also watch out for parts that are barely larger than this industry standard, because children have choked on parts that are larger, says Elizabeth Hitchcock, public health advocate for U.S. PIRG. "We always caution parents to really look hard at a toy, take it out of the box and use it before they put it in the hands of their child," Hitchcock says. "See if there are parts that will break off, and don't just rely on the label."
• Do not buy products bearing the California Proposition 65 label with wording similar to this: "Warning: This product contains chemicals known to the State of California to cause cancer and birth defects or other reproductive harm."
• Avoid toys containing small magnets that can be swallowed. When ingested, strong magnets will attract to each other and can cause serious internal injuries.
• Though these are few and far between, look for toys and children's products that have labels indicating what ingredients were used to make them.
• Check out lists put together by groups that have conducted tests on toys. Healthystuff.org (www.healthystuff.org), run by Ecology Center, a nonprofit organization based in Ann Arbor, Mich., does independent testing on a range of consumer products including toys, providing snapshots, available online, of potential chemical hazards. Healthystuff.org has screened more than 5,000 toys since beginning its testing in 2007. It uses an X-ray technology to look for hazardous substances, but the technology can't detect all chemicals of concern. It ranks products by level of concern based on about 10 priority chemicals. GoodGuide.com ranks products, including toys, based on (among other things) environmental and health effects.
U.S. PIRG will release its 25th annual Trouble in Toyland report, a survey of toy safety, on Tuesday. This year's report will focus on toys containing toxic substances, toys that pose choking hazards and excessively loud toys. The organization has developed a smart phone application to help consumers make wise toy choices.
The Eco-Toy Alliance (http://www.ecotoyalliance.com) is a partnership of four companies dedicated to making Earth-friendly toys, which tend to be made with nontoxic, natural materials (check each product to be safe). One of the companies, Green Toys Inc., markets its toys as being free of phthalates and bisphenol A, a compound commonly used in plastics and linings of food cans that is now considered a toxic substance in Canada.
In future years, other tips will help consumers choose. A new environmental certification organization named "EcoLogo" is set to be finalized by the end of 2010, for example. It will provide eco-labels for toys based on the health and sustainability of the products used to manufacture those toys. Toys bearing the eco-label should begin showing up on shelves next year.
And in California, the Department of Toxic Substances Control is finalizing new regulations for chemicals under the state's Green Chemistry Initiative. Companies will have to disclose information on priority chemicals in the products they sell in California and in some cases seek safer alternatives. The department plans to release its initial list of priority chemicals in March 2012, then the publication of a list of products that use those chemicals by September 2013.
In the meantime, the safest bets are to look for toys made with natural materials, such as unpainted wood, and natural fabrics such as wool and cotton. When buying painted wood products, consider companies that use nontoxic paints or dyes. Look for toys bearing eco-labels and for brands committed to using safe, nontoxic products in toy manufacturing.