Toy Safety Checklist
Every time a toy is recalled from reputable toy manufacturers, parents are left wondering about the safety of their children’s playthings. The lesson? Unsafe toys can still show up on store shelves. The good news is that most play-related injuries are avoidable – all it takes is a little research. Know the safety hazards so you can screen the toys that come into your home. Here’s a safety checklist to start you off.
Note: Safety requirements for toys sold in Canada are specified in the Hazardous Products Act and the associated Hazardous Products (Toys) Regulations. This legislation is administered and enforced by Health Canada’s Consumer Product Safety. Most toy manufacturers also follow the standards set out by the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM) International.
Buying a Toy
The best safety precaution you can take is to purchase well made toys from manufacturers you trust. And be sure to check age recommendations and safety warnings on the label — they’re there for a reason! Here are some other things to watch for when buying a toy.
Small parts: Choking, ingestion and inhalation hazards
Choking on a small part is the most common cause of toy-related deaths and injuries. Anything that can be totally enclosed in a small-parts cylinder using a force of 4.45 newtons (1-pound force) or less is considered a choking hazard. This specially designed testing chamber — which approximates the size of the fully expanded throat of a child under 3 — has an interior diameter of 31.7 millimetres (1.25 inches) and a slanted bottom with a depth ranging from 25.4 — 57.1 millimetres (1 to 2.25 inches). Round objects are more dangerous as they can completely block a child’s airway, so stay away from balls less than 45 millimetres (1.75 inches) in diameter.
Any toy with small parts — or that might produce small parts when broken — is banned for children under 3. A warning label is required on toys with small parts for children from the ages of 3 to 6.
If you want to test small toys and parts yourself, you can purchase a small-parts cylinder, or get a rough approximation using a 35-millimetre film canister, golf ball or a cardboard toilet-paper roll. It’s best to err on the side of caution.
- Rattles must be constructed so that no part of it can enter an infant’s mouth and become lodged in the throat. Watch out for key-shaped rattles, or those designed to look like animals (eg. with long ears or feet).
- Be cautious with balloons, which have caused more deaths than any other children’s product. Immediately dispose of broken balloons and keep deflated ones away from children under 8. Adult supervision is required.
- Check all toys to make sure there are no loose or broken parts. Wheels that come off cars, buttons and eyes that fall off dolls or plush toys and squeakers that pop out of squeaky toys top the list.
Mechanical hazards: Durability
If a toy breaks, there could be sharp parts or detached small pieces that could be a choking hazard, or there might be liquids released that could contain dangerous microbes. To simulate the wear and tear needed to identify potential safety hazards, drop test and push-pull test procedures are applied.
The drop test requires that a toy be dropped four times (each time with the toy in a different position) onto a tile-covered concrete floor from varying heights, depending on the age recommendation for the toy.
The push/pull test procedure specifies that a push or pull force of 44.5 newtons (10-pound force) be gradually applied over a five-second period and maintained for 10 seconds. The procedure is completed on any part of a toy that is likely to become detached or damaged by the application of such force.
Note that actual play may expose hazards that are not revealed through these tests. A good example is the voluntary recall of Leap Frog’s Learn Around Playground in the fall of 2006. No one anticipated that curious kids reaching into the toy after the mysteriously disappearing balls would get their arms trapped in the toy.
Sharp parts and puncture hazards
- Metal parts must be constructed so that there are no exposed sharp metal edges. Toys containing an embedded wire frame must have wire ends covered or turned in.
- Plastic toys must not break and expose sharp edges.
- Wooden toys must be smoothly finished and splinter-free.
- All fasteners used to construct toys – nails, staples, bolts and screws – must be securely and properly attached and covered.
- Stuffing material must be free from hard and sharp matter.
Strangulation and entanglement hazards
- Chords or straps on toys in the form of loops or straight lengths can strangle a child. Loops shouldn’t be large enough to fit over a child’s head, nor should a chord be long enough to wrap around a child’s neck.
- Shorter chords and ribbons that come untied can pose an entanglement hazard, potentially cutting off circulation to the entrapped body part. Infants especially like to grasp and clutch, so be sure there is nothing long enough to become wrapped around a finger.
- Elastics designed for attaching a toy across a baby carriage, crib or playpen must not stretch beyond 750 millimetres (30 inches), or it must not extend more than 75 percent of its relaxed length.
Kids have been swallowing magnets for a long time. Health Canada reports that in the 11 years prior to 2003, there were 96 recorded cases of children swallowing magnets. What’s different today is the use of rare earth magnets in toys. It’s these ultra powerful magnets that are causing such devastating intestinal complications. Since 2003 there have been 19 incidents of swallowed magnets requiring complex surgery, as well as the death of a 20-month-old. In May 2007, the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM) International responded by revising its toy standards to include magnets, which are now considered hazardous if they “have a flux of 50 or greater and a specific ingestible shape and size.” Toys and craft sets targeted to children under 8 that contain such magnets as loose parts are now required to display a warning that if swallowed these magnets can stick together across intestines causing serious infections or even death.
Watch kids carefully around magnets because they can’t seem to resist the fascination of having a couple of magnets stuck on either side of their cheek – or tongue. We consider any magnets that will stick together through your earlobe dangerous enough to avoid, including embedded magnets that can become dislodged.
Toxic chemicals in toys
Banned substances include lead, mercury, antimony, arsenic, cadmium, selenium and barium. For example, paints and other surface coating materials must not contain more than 600 milligrams/kilogram total lead and not more than 10 milligrams/kilogram total mercury. These limits are intended to effectively eliminate the intentional addition of lead, mercury and other toxins in surface-coating materials.
Lead poisoning can cause irreversible brain damage and can impair mental functioning, including attention span. According to the medical director at the Ontario Poison Control Centre, the nature of lead poisoning requires significant and prolonged exposure, and while toys small enough to fit into a child's mouth can result in saliva dissolving lead from paint, one or two episodes will not pose a risk. That being said, it is important to minimize a child’s exposure to any toxin.
Caution should also be exercised with other children’s products, such as jewellery and play cosmetics. There have been several recalls for excessive lead content in children’s jewellery. Children should be discouraged from sucking on jewellery, as there have been reports of kids accidentally swallowing pendants or charms containing excessive amounts of lead. There have also been reports of manufacturers selling play cosmetics that include nail polish containing toxic chemicals such as toluene and xylene, which is extremely harmful when kids suck on their fingers.
Phthalates are a class of chemicals, known as plasticizers, which are sometimes used to make vinyl soft. Diisononyl phthalate (DINP) has been used in teethers, rattles and other soft plastic toys. The substance has been linked to reproductive defects and other health problems, and is considered a potential health risk for children under 5, and especially when infants under a year in age suck or chew on soft vinyl products containing DINP for long periods of time. Unfortunately, there is nothing to hold toymakers accountable to the “phthalate-free” label, and some products labelled as ‘phthalate-free” have been found to contain phthalates.
In November 2003, the ASTM International adopted a voluntary acoustics standard for toys, setting the loudness threshold for most toys at 90 decibels. Canadian standards prohibit toys that make or emit noise exceeding 100 decibels when measured at the distance the toy ordinarily would be from the ear of the child using it.
How loud is too loud? If it sounds loud in your ears, it’s probably too loud for your child. Be particularly careful about toys that will be near ears – headphones, a toy your child sleeps or cuddles with or any toy a child is tempted to put next to his ear.
The specific noise threshold levels identified by ASTM are:
- Hand-held, tale-top, floor and crib toys: Should not produce a continuous sound that exceeds 90 decibels when measured from 25 centimetres.
- Close-to-the-ear toys: Should not produce continuous sound that exceeds 70 decibels when measured from 25 centimetres.
- Impact-type impulsive sounds (e.g. video games): Should not produce and impact-peak sound in excess of 120 decibels when measured from 25 centimetres.
- Explosive-type impulsive sounds: Should not produce an explosive-type peak in excess of 138 decibels when measured from 25 centimetres.
Stringent flammability requirements are in place for all textile materials used in the outer covering of dolls, plush and soft toys, including their clothing and hair. The basic requirement is that the toy, when held at a 45-degree angle, must not ignite within one second of contact with a flame, and that the flame not travel a distance of 127 millimetres (5 inches) in seven seconds or less.
Check for the Canadian Standards Association (CSA) label on electrically operated toys, which indicates that the toy has been tested for electrocution, burn, shock and fire hazards. Make sure the child is old enough (at least 8 years old) to understand not to touch the prongs or outlet directly. Avoid toys that spark – even intentionally for effect. Toys that use a heat source should not be given to kids under 8 years old.
Make sure that toys intended for children under 3 have a battery compartment that cannot be opened by a child (it should require a tool to open). Battery compartments on all toys should be securely closed so that the batteries will not fall out when the toy is dropped.
Only an adult should install batteries. If the batteries somehow pop out during play, instruct your child to bring the toy back to you to re-install them. Improper installation (eg. in a reversed position) can cause batteries to leak or overheat. Keep battery toys away from hair. Make sure children under 3 cannot open the battery compartment. Never take a battery toy to bed – it can overheat and cause burns or a fire from leaking or overheating batteries. Batteries can be poisonous; if a child swallows a battery seek immediate medical attention.
A number of crayon brands produced in China were recalled in 1994 due to unacceptable levels of lead, enough to present a lead poisoning hazard to young children who could eat or chew on the crayons. Concerns were also raised about crayons that contain small amounts of asbestos, talc and “transitional” fibre, which is similar in appearance to asbestos fibre.
Parents are urged to buy only crayons, chalk and other children’s art materials that have a label indicating that the product “Conforms to ASTM D-4236”, which means that the formula for the art materials has been reviewed by a toxicologist for chronic hazards and the product is labelled appropriately.
Regulations aim to minimize the risks of possible ingestion of and skin contact with chemicals. Labelling is required to advise the user of hazards associated with the chemicals and the need for taking precautions when they are used.
Look for toys that will drain quickly and thoroughly. There should be enough airflow that all parts of the toy, including the inside, will dry between baths. Trapped moisture can cause mildew growth. Despite its dark colour, mildew growing inside the toy is often not visible from the outside. Clean bath toys periodically with a weak bleach solution.
Crib mobiles are intended strictly for decoration or passive amusement and should be removed as soon as an infant is pushing up on their hands and knees or is 5 months old, whichever comes first.
Health Canada does not recommend the use of bumper pads in cribs because they pose an entanglement, entrapment, strangulation and suffocation hazard to infants. We believe this should apply to toys left in the crib, especially those that hang on the side. The presence of bumper pads in a crib may also be a contributing factor for Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) by reducing the flow of oxygen rich air to the infant in the crib.
All infant toys should be washable to fully sanitize them. (Babies often spit up or chew on their toys.) They should either be dishwasher safe or suitable for machine laundering.
Push and pull toys
A shaft-like handle of 10 millimetres (0.375 inches) in diameter or less, must have a protective tip attached to the end of the handle to prevent puncture wounds. It must be held in place with enough strength to withstand a pulling force of 44.5 newtons (10-pound force).
Dolls and plush toys
Fabric bodies, clothes, hair/fur and stuffing must all meet flammability standards (see Flammability). Watch for attachments (buttons, eyes, bows, poorly rooted hair, etc.) that might come loose and present a choking or entanglement hazard. Be cautious with toys that feature a wire skeleton to shape figures and bend them into different postures. Check that the wire ends have been covered or turned in so that no sharp points can become exposed with use. Seams should be secure so stuffing doesn’t escape. And watch for stuffing with a peppery aroma, which may mean that the stuffing contains sawdust from certain evergreen trees that have been associated with dermatitis and allergic reactions.
Toddler and preschool ride-on toys
A ride-on toy must be stable and it should remain so when weight is placed on any riding point. Make sure the toy suits your child’s age, size and abilities. Always supervise and use ride-ons in a clear, uncluttered space away from dangerous areas such as stairs, roads and swimming pools.
Bikes, sport toys and protective gear
Your child should always wear a helmet when riding a bike. Never buy a bike large enough for the child to “grow into it,” as the improper size could compromise the child’s ability to safely manoeuvre the bike.
Helmets and protective gear for elbows, wrists and knees are also advised for many sport activities.
Ensure kids are old enough (at least 6 years old) to use the toy safely. These toys require the maturity to keep the toy pointed at a safe target, not other children, pets, etc.
The projectiles to be fired should not have any sharp edges, sharp points, or small parts. Rigid projectiles should not have a tip radius of less than 0.08 inches (2 millimetres).
Constant supervision is a must near any body of water. Inflatable toys are not a substitute for a lifejacket. Toys with rigid shafts are unsafe, as there have been reports of impalement injuries when kids jump into the water.
Discard toy packaging
Keep information on the box for future reference, but discard any extra packaging, especially plastic wrap, foam, staples and ties.
Follow assembly instructions carefully to ensure the toy is safely put together.
Even the safest toy is not a substitute for parental supervision. Teach safe use of toys, and ensure that they play safely: no hitting, etc.
Toy storage and maintaining a clutter-free play space
Kids can be taught at an early age to store their toys properly. Besides teaching good habits and responsibility for their things, it keeps the play space uncluttered. (Note: Always keep toys off stairs!) It is also good prevention to keep and store toys for older kids separately from those intended for younger siblings.
Any storage used by a child should ideally be lid-free. If there is a lid, it should be one with a hinged lid designed to stay open in any position and under force. Any lidded compartment – whether a toy or for storage – that is big enough for a child to climb inside should have large air holes on two or more sides in order to prevent suffocation. There should be no latch that could lock or trap a child inside.
Inspect toys frequently (at least every 3 months)
Make sure there are no loose or broken parts, sharp edges or crush points that can pinch. Check for emerging hazards mentioned above – scratched or faded paint, weakened seams that allow stuffing to escape, wire frames poking out, etc. Keep toys away from heat source that could catch fire or melt plastic.