How to Spot Dangerous Toys

Shoppers can make smart and safe gift purchases by looking out for common risks in toys.

Young woman is choosing toys for her kid.
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For anyone planning to give a child a gift, the last thing they want to do is give those special little ones something that could severely injure them or even lead to their death.

Even though the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission has issued only 31 toy recalls in fiscal year 2013, toys that are deemed safe can end up on store shelves, only later to be found dangerous.

In November, the CPSC and the U.S. Customs and Border Protection seized 200,000 unsafe toy dolls from China at U.S. ports. The dolls contained phthalates, which are chemicals used to make plastics more flexible. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that while the human health effects of exposure to low levels of phthalates are unknown, research has shown some affect the reproductive system of lab animals.

[See: The 10 Most Dangerous Products to Kids.]

When toys aren't intercepted before becoming available to consumers, the results can be tragic. Only five days before last Christmas, a baby toy with an animal head and arms designed to be tugged back and forth was recalled because the rattling beads inside its clear plastic sphere can be released. The CPSC concluded this flaw posed a choking hazard – a common reason for recalls. In January, another recall was issued for small magnetic balls that could kill a child if swallowed.

The good news for shoppers is there are common traits dangerous toys have that you can lookout for, and parents can also take certain steps to reduce the risk that their child is injured by a toy. Here are some things to keep in mind when deciding which toys to purchase this year.

Riding toys. The majority of the 11 toy-related deaths reported so far in fiscal year 2013 for children under 15 were from riding toys. Most incidents involved tricycles and nonmotorized scooters, with four victims riding tricycles into swimming pools and drowning, and one child receiving a fatal head injury after his tricycle toppled. Two children rode nonmotorized scooters into traffic and were killed by cars.

While no injuries were sustained in the April recall of the popular Urban Shredder ride-on toy, there were 17 reports of the battery-operated toys accelerating unexpectedly, causing the rider to lose control and possibly fall off.

Choking hazards. Asphyxiation and aspiration were the next leading causes of toy-related fatalities, according to the CPSC. Two deaths involved balloons and one involved a stuffed animal, which a 7-month-old girl had pushed against the side of her face in her crib, causing her to die of suffocation. To avoid similar incidents, the CPSC recommends keeping deflated or broken balloons away from children younger than 8.

[Read: The Holiday Gift for Kids That Keeps Giving.]

Toys with small parts that can detach, such as a stuffed animal's eyes, can be a choking hazard for children under age 3, though some older children may still put dangerous objects in their mouths, says Nikki Fleming, a spokeswoman for the CPSC. A warning label that states a toy isn't meant for children under 3 may not be enough, Fleming says.

"No one knows your child as well as you as far as still mouthing objects," she says, adding that parents should keep toys with small parts away from their children, no matter how young, if they know that they put a lot of things in their mouths.

Swallowing a battery or magnet can also cause poisoning, says Dr. Young-Jin Sue, a pediatrician at The Children's Hospital at Montefiore in Bronx, N.Y. Battery compartments should be made difficult for a child to open, since ingested button batteries may leak toxic compounds, and ingesting small, super-strong magnets may cause intestinal punctures, Sue says.

"In general, toys small enough to hide inside a cardboard toilet paper roll may present the most risk" for choking, she says. "Try to avoid these items, and stick to larger toys with few detachable parts."

Toys that break easily. Toys made of plastic or glass that can break or shatter during use can be dangerous, though not deadly. An estimated 192,000 toy-related injuries to children under 15 in calendar year 2012 required treatment at a hospital emergency department, according to the CPSC. The CPSC reported that a 3-year-old girl cut her foot while playing with a plastic and glass toy that broke, and a 9-year-old girl cut her wrist on a broken porcelain doll.