The Carlisle Mosquito Online

Friday, December 14, 2007


Shopping for safe toys? Look locally.

A customer at Ferns drops off a donation in the Toys for Tots box. See page 24 for information. (Photo by Lois d'Annunzio)
Parents and grandparents shopping for toys this holiday season can hardly miss the warnings in local and national media about unsafe toys. California has banned the sale of toys containing PVC and a toxic contaminant called phthalates, widely found in vinyl products for children. Jerry Brown, attorney general of California, is suing 20 companies, including Mattel, Toys R Us, Fisher-Price, Michael's Stores, Sears & Roebuck, Costco, Eveready Battery, K-Mart and Marvel Entertainment, for "selling toys that contain unlawful amounts of lead" without warning the public.

Consumer, environmental and health advocacy groups also warn consumers to beware of lead and other toxic substances in paint and other surface materials, of small parts that can separate from a toy and become a choking hazard, and stray magnets that have killed children who swallow them. A Michigan-based nonprofit, the Ecology Center, has reported that "tests on more than 1,200 children's products, most of them still on store shelves, found that 35% contain lead, many with levels far above the federal recall standard used for lead paint." And a Washington Post article tells parents how to equip themselves to test toys for safety hazards right in the store. (see box for web addresses)

Closer to home, the December 8 issue of the Boston Globe reported on strategies that toy store owners and shoppers have developed to cope with these worries. The Mosquito has asked owners of four small toy shops near Carlisle what they are doing to avoid selling hazardous toys.

Guidelines and documentation

For the most part, local retailers say they rely on their vendors' assurances that the toys they sell are safe and have been rigorously tested. "Every company I deal with has safety guidelines" and thoroughly tests their products, said Matt Sahagian of Learning Express in Acton. He also depends on the Learning Express corporate office to monitor for safety problems. These retailers predict more pressure and scrutiny in the future on the part of manufacturers to "tighten up" and test a much-higher proportion of imported toys.

The owners of Willow Books and the Toy Shop of Westford both have asked their vendors for "documentation" or "verification" of testing. "I don't buy from companies I don't trust," said David Hesel, owner of the Toy Shop of Concord, which carries a mix of American- and European-made toys. Customers are refusing to buy toys from China, he reported, but the safety problem does not originate in "the country — it's the company," he asserts.

No testing locally

None of the owners has done any testing of the toys in their store. "We don't have the bandwidth to test every toy sold" in Learning Express stores, says Meghan Powderly, director of communications and marketing at the Learning Express corporate office. Instead, the owners speak of knowing their suppliers well, and trusting them to assure safety. The problematic toys that have been recalled recently have been "more mass-market items" that are less likely to appear in these small stores, and, according to one owner, "the cheaper stores don't ask [as] many questions."

Getting documentation of testing was not a problem for Sonya Kalajian of the Toy Shop of Westford, because "we deal with very small vendors," some of whom test as much as 20% of the toys in a lot. Hesel of the Toy Shop of Concord said, "I know the manufacturers well enough to know who's tested and . . . who hasn't tested."

"High quality," U.S. or E.U. made

All the owners also mentioned other protective practices, including prompt removal of recalled items. They also carry "high-quality" toys (Willow Books), or toys manufactured in the U.S. (Toy Shop of Concord, and the Lauri brand at Willow Books,) or from Europe (Toy Shop of Concord) where, said Hesel, "testing [of imported toys] is mandatory." The retailers also say that safety problems can arise when parents or grandparents buy toys that are not age-appropriate. Some things parents choose are "fine for eight- to ten-year olds, but not okay for two- to three-year olds . . . with little tiny pieces," one said, adding that parents "have to be on guard" constantly.

So it's "buyer beware" on toy shopping this holiday season. Buying locally may well be a safer option for concerned parents than shopping at the megastores at the mall.

Web addresses on toy safety

Consumer/safety advocates

Potential sources for less toxic gifts

From the toy industry

2007 The Carlisle Mosquito