Are toys safe today?

Is danger lurking in that toy you want to buy for a favourite toddler?

This year, the chances are better than ever that the answer is no.

Toys now on the market in the US are supposed to meet a higher safety standard than they have before, thanks to a law that Congress passed in response to scandals over unsafe toys in 2007. Back then, Mattel alone recalled 21 million Chinese-made toys in a two-month period.

Some of the most important provisions of the 2008 law just kicked in this year, making this the first holiday season with legally-mandated lower lead levels in products made for children under 12.

The legislation obliges toy makers to do independent lead testing or face stiff penalties. It sets a progressively stiffer standard for total lead content in children’s products and also reduces the limit of lead allowed in surface coatings or paint.

It also bans the sale and distribution or import of any children’s toy that contains certain compounds called phthalates, a common component of some products that has been linked to reproductive defects and other health dangers.

Under the law, the limits are applied retroactively to products on a retailer’s shelves even if they were manufactured prior to enactment.

All of this offers a measure of reassurance to parents and others buying gifts for toddlers. Unfortunately, no law can guarantee that all children’s products are entirely safe. Witness the controversy that emerged over the weekend over robotic Zhu Zhu Pets hamsters, one of this season’s top-selling toys.

A San Francisco-based group said unallowable levels of the chemical antimony were found in the toy. The toymaker, based in St. Louis, insisted that its product is safe and has passed rigorous testing.

This dispute is unlikely to be settled definitively before the gift-giving season ends. Meanwhile, China, the source of many troubled products over the years, still manufactures 80 percent of the toys sold in this country.

For consumers, continuing controversies over toy safety mean that law or no law, it’s smart to keep in mind the old axiom caveat emptor, buyer beware.

One way to do that is to monitor the website of the Consumer Product Safety Commission (www.cpsc.gov) for recall information, as well as following basic safety rules when buying toys for children.

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