- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 22, 2000

Santa's list will have to have a few revisions this year if he checks the U.S. Public Interest Research Group's Web site from his workshop.

The District of Columbia-based consumer group yesterday released its 15th annual report on potentially hazardous toys, finding 34 instances of improper labeling, marketing or manufacturing in Washington-area stores.

The report said there are fewer dangerous toys in stores than in previous years, but children are still dying from choking on small parts, for example.

According to data cited in the report from the Consumer Product Safety Commission, which oversees toy recalls, 16 children under the age of 11 died in 1999 in toy-related accidents. An estimated 152,600 people, 46 percent under the age of 5, were treated in hospital emergency rooms for such injuries.

"We write the report to give parents and consumers the tool to shop wisely for children" in anticipation of the holiday gift-buying season, said Rachel Weintraub, author of "Trouble in Toyland" and staff attorney for PIRG. Her organization lobbies on issues ranging from the environment to government reform.

Ms. Weintraub said the number of toy-related deaths is low relative to the population as a whole, but the issue of hazardous toys remains pressing.

"Every death is tragic, and with toys, every death is preventable," she said.

Nychelle Fleming, a spokesman for the Consumer Product Safety Commission, said reports like Ms. Weintraub's are helpful.

"We consider them to be an extra set of eyes and ears," she said.

Ms. Fleming said the commission will review all of the report's charges. The government agency does not pre-test toys, but monitors new products as they come out.

The Toy Manufacturers of America, a New York-based trade group, countered the claims in a press release.

"To suggest that a toy is 'potentially' dangerous when no real danger exists is irresponsible," the group said. The association would not offer a comment other than its statement.

Many of the toys targeted by the report are improperly labeled, not drawing attention to choking hazards, Ms. Weintraub wrote. Balloons also are named as a culprit. After they explode, children can put pieces into their mouths, where the balloon pieces can expand and block air passages.

The report also highlighted the use of phthalates, a chemical ingredient in some vinyl products, as posing a risk to children. Ms. Weintraub said the European Union has banned use of the chemical in toys for children under age 3 and requires warning labels for others.

The toy manufacturers scoffed at the group's claims about phthalates in their release.

"The claims of the small group of activists that persists in frightening parents and caretakers with false allegations of dangers posed by the plasticizers used in vinyl fly in the face of the plastics' unblemished history of proven safe use," the association said in its statement.

The consumer group called on parents to be alert to threats presented by some toys. The report also asked both manufacturers and the safety commission to be more vigilant about making and regulating products.

Ms. Fleming noted that of the toys targeted by various "hit lists" last year, none was recalled by her agency.

However, some manufacturers pulled the toys from shelves on their own.

This year's report criticized the FAO Girl Jewelry/Hair Box, which has small parts but no choking warning.

FAO Schwarz spokesman Alan Marcus said that would be remedied.

"It was, in fact, an oversight on our part," he said.

Similar products made by the New York toy company do carry warning labels. Mr. Marcus said the safety commission called the manufacturer yesterday morning to alert it to the problem.

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