This piece was published in December edition of Bay State Parent.
Jennifer Rios of Westminster has a box full of Thomas the Tank Engine toys that her children, ages 6, 4, and 2, are not allowed to play with. She is not entirely sure which ones have been recalled and which are safe. But she is sure that some of those toys she bought for her children have been painted with lead paint. So, no Thomas the Tank Engine play time in her home.
"I just feel like the whole recall thing is confusing," Rios added.
In 2007, lead paint was discovered on children's toys manufactured in China. Then, there were small magnets in toys that could be swallowed. Recently, a chemical mimicking the date rape drug GHB was found in Aqua Dots, an arts & crafts toy.
As mid-November, there have been 70 toy brands and 25 million products, including well-known names such as Dora the Explorer, Barbie, and Elmo, recalled this year alone.
Erica Bodden, of Shrewsbury, the mother of children ages 8, 11, and 13, said she is less concerned about the recalls, since her children are older; but still, it's something she thinks about.
"It's something I have in the back of my mind for sure," Bodden said. In fact, while she may not Christmas shop differently this year, she said she's "put the kibosh" on toys from gumball machines, since even older children put necklaces and chains often dispensed by the machines in their mouths while fiddling with their jewelry.
And parents are now in the toy-buying season.
"I feel like Christmas this year, I'm not going to spend as much," said Rios. "Toys are a major waste of money now, because you don't know what's safe."
This year, she says, she'll stick to books, hats, mittens, and will steer clear of anything made in China.
David Parent of Westford, a father of a 4- and 6-year-old, agreed.
"I think they have a lot of problems in China."
When shopping, he will be looking to see where products are made.
However, Betsy Madson, owner of the Classic Toy Shop, in Worcester, said most toys are made in China. Parent will likely have a hard time finding toys that have no parts made in China, she added.
"You might as well zip up your wallet," Madson said.
Still, Madson said she is seeing a lot of concern - and confusion - about the toy recalls.
"Actually, what I'm seeing are more grandparents are petrified of making the wrong choice that mom and dad will veto," she said.
Jack Schylling, president of Schylling Associates, of Rowley, which specializes in old-fashioned tin and wooden toys, said parents can shop with confidence this year. Schylling would only be interviewed via an e-mailed list of questions. The company has recalled four of its toys for lead paint: Dizzy Ducks music box, spinning metal tops with wood handles, the Duck Family wind up toys, and the Robot 2000 tin robots. Since the recalls, the company does not grant live interviews.
Schylling, a father of three young children, said his company is now requiring additional testing from vendors and has ended business relationships with those who cannot lived up to the company's standards.
However, he wrote, parents should not worry too much. Often, "the problems with lead paint contamination were caused by a few paint factories essentially cheating their customers." Toy companies acted in good faith, believing the paint they used on toys was safe. In September, Schylling wrote, China has banned lead paint in the country, so eventually, it will begin disappearing from the country altogether.
"The system is working," Schylling wrote. "The toys being sold today are safer than they have ever been. There are many good people working very hard to protect our children."
Hasbro Inc., of Pawtucket, R.I., did not respond to a call to talk about toy recalls.
Bibi Nageer, director of the Apple-a-Day daycare center in Worcester said parents need to check their gifts against recall lists and be cautions of plastic toys and toys with metallic finishes.
Wooden toys are often the best bet, but parents still need to be careful of varnish on the toys. She recommended parents bring the latest recall list with them when holiday shopping.
Expect kids to wheedle, Nageer said, "They don't know that some of these toys that they would like to have could hurt them."
Dr. Margarita Perez, associate professor of early childhood development at Worcester State College, said she also is concerned about how the toys will affect Christmas donations this year. She said the idea of sharing "has become part of" the holiday season. It's certainly something she discusses with her own grandchildren.
Dr. Ericka Fisher, assistant professor of education at Holy Cross College in Worcester, and a mother of a 2- and a 6- year-old, said she's also concerned about toy donations, especially since toys often reach children whose parents may not have access to the television or Internet.
"We're just passing on a problem from our child to someone else's child."
Perez and Fisher also advised heeding the age warnings on toys.
"Parents need to know their child well when it comes to deciding what's appropriate," said Perez
Often, said, Fisher, parents believe their child is smart enough to play with an older child's toy, never considering that there may be small magnets or choking hazards in the product, not appropriate for younger children.
Perez said the recalls have made parents question how safe their children's toys are in general. She said the desire for inexpensive toys had led to outsourcing production to countries that have more relaxed regulations.
While stores have been responsible in removing tainted toys from the shelves, she said there's a bigger issue at work. She said parents should talk to their legislators and urge stricter safety standards for children's toys - even if that may create more expensive toys in the future.
"You pay or you pay," said Perez.
In the meantime, she recommends buying toys from a reputable toy store.
Check toy labels, and visit the local hardware store to ask questions about paints or varnish.
Fisher said she's going back to puzzles and books this Christmas and other toys that engage children in healthy, imaginative play.
"I believe in going back to the old standbys," said Fisher.
And that means less mass-market products. Fisher said while Thomas the Tank Engine is popular with children, there are other toys trains to buy.
"I'm honestly hoping to make it through Christmas this year without buying any character merchandise. And, that will be a first in seven years of Christmases."
Donna Roberson is a Massachusetts-based freelance writer and the assistant news editor at The Telegraph newspaper in Nashua, N.H.
How Lead Affects a Child
Unfortunately, there are no telltale signs of lead poisoning, said Dr. Michael Shannon, associate director of the Pediatric Environmental Health Center at Children's Hospital Boston and a professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School.
"There's no way to know," said Shannon, which is why pediatricians often test children for lead poisoning.
Often the buildup of lead in a child is gradual until the lead affects the kidneys, the liver, and the brain, said Shannon. In fact, lead affects virtually every organ in an individual's body, he added.
According to the Minnesota-based Mayo Clinic's Web site, children may experience irritability, loss of appetite, weight loss, sluggishness, abdominal pain, vomiting, constipation, unusual paleness, and learning difficulties when lead levels in their blood are high.
Treatments for lead poisoning include prevention by removing the source of the lead poisoning, nutritional supplements and, in extreme cases, medication which binds with the lead so it is excreted in the urine.
Dr. Shannon said parents who have had toys recalled should find the product and send it back to the manufacturer. Do not dispose of the toy in the trash, since lead is a toxic substance; and do not donate the toy.
He said parents do not need to call their pediatrician and have their child tested for lead poisoning, since young children who put toys in their mouths may have some leeching of lead into their blood, but are unlikely to have ingested enough to suffer from lead poisoning.
"I would call that exposure trivial," said Dr. Shannon.
In the meantime, parents who may worry they may miss that all-important recall, can get the information online, said Jeannette Hudson of the Children's Safety Network in Boston. Plus, Bay State Parent magazine post recalls on its blog. To access the recalls, visit www.baystateparent.com and click on recalls on the left-hand navigation links. Hudson said parents can sign up for emails of the latest recalls by the Consumer Product Safety Commission at www.cpsc.gov/cpsclist.aspx. To review past recalls from the Commission visit www.cpsc.gov/cpscpub/prerel/category/toy.html. To search the Commission's recall list, visit www.cpsc.gov/cpscpub/prerel/prerel.html. To buy the right toy for your child's age, visit www.cpsc.gov/cpscpub/pubs/grand/toy/toysafe.html