By Sarah Ovaska

It’s the time of year when store shelves are groaning with toys and relatives wander through stores, trying to figure out just what would be just right for a 2-year-old niece, grandson or daughter.

But not all the toys out there for sale are necessarily safe, with young children particularly at risk of choking or suffocating from toys with small parts or pieces that can detach.

There were 17 deaths of children under the age of 15 related to toys in 2018, and more than 166,000 ER trips linked to toy-related injuries, according to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission.

The U.S. Public Interest Research Group (PIRG) released “Trouble in Toyland,” their annual guide of toys that pose potential harm to children, with this year’s list containing items such as small, powerful magnets and pre-made slime, many of which the consumer rights group tested and found boron levels that exceed some safety levels.


Slime is among the list of unsafe holiday toys this year.
Slime, which landed on the list of unsafe toys this year, lines the shelves at Ali Cat toys in Carrboro. Photo credit: Sarah Ovaska.

At Dancing Bear Toys, a family-owned operation with locations in Asheville and Hendersonville, the staff there is frequently asked about age appropriateness of various toys, said Erika Evers, whose family has operated the toy stores for more than two decades.

The store trains its staff throughout the year about this, going over what’s developmentally appropriate and reiterating that toys with small pieces or detachable parts should not be given to children under 3 – the ages when kids will put anything and everything in their mouths, as anyone who spends time with young children can attest.

Dancing Bear stocks toys that largely came from makers the owners have years of experience with, she said, and they trust that there’s been extensive testing to ensure there’s no lead in the paint or other risks.

“A lot of our toys are European toys, they have an extra layer of safety checks,” Evers said.

EDs see evidence of risk

Karen Chilton, a pediatrician and associate chief medical and quality officer for WakeMed Children’s Hospital in Raleigh, said she and other emergency room doctors frequently see objects swallowed by young children pose serious dangers, as well as injuries. Parents and others should make sure babies or toddlers don’t have access to small things and remind older children in the household as well to be on the lookout for misplaced items that could pose dangers.

“Make sure smaller children are supervised,” Chilton said, with breakable ornaments, strings of Christmas lights also posing dangers to small, curious children.

But that doesn’t mean parents necessarily need to be on high alert, just ensuring that babies and toddlers don’t have access to things they could choke or injure themselves on.

“Don’t let it make you paranoid and take the joy of the holiday,” Chilton said. “Be aware of where your kids are and where they’re playing.”

Her big piece of advice for older children: make sure they have a helmet on whenever they’re on something with wheels that’s moving, whether it’s a scooter, skateboard, roller skates or bicycle.

It’s advice Chilton has for her own children, telling them “if it has wheels, you’re wearing a helmet.”

Toys with small pieces, like puzzles and legos can be a chocking hazard for young children.
Toys with small pieces can be a chocking hazard for young children. Photo credit: Sarah Ovaska.

Doctors at WakeMed consistently see children come in with bicycles or skateboard injuries that could have been catastrophic if not for a helmet protecting the child’s head, she said.

Start with helmets when they’re young, even if it’s toddling around on a tricycle so that they make the connection that when they’re on a bicycle, a helmet needs to be on their head.

Parents and adults should do the same, to model the behavior they want their kids to have (and stay safe themselves.)

Check your list twice

Here are some of the things that are popping up as dangerous or concerning, from Chilton, the PIRG report, and the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission.

  • Batteries:The most dangerous types are the smaller-than-dimes, round button lithium batteries. These are small enough for a young child to swallow easily and pose enormous dangers if that happens, Chilton said. In most cases, doctors need to surgically remove the battery immediately from a child’s body, with serious risks posed if the battery becomes lodged in the gastrointestinal tract where it can leach toxins that can corrode an intestine or stomach, she said.
  • Magnets: These follow close behind batteries in terms of danger, with the high-powered magnets currently on the market, such as Zen Magnets, particularly concerning in households with small children. Swallowing one magnet is likely to be fine, given that it would pass through a children’s system. But if more than one is swallowed, the risk is there that the magnets may be attracted to each other through the gastrointestinal tract and cause serious injuries. That’s what happened to a Wisconsin 4-year-old last year, who underwent emergency surgery after ingesting 13 small magnets that came out of a popular building block. If you believe a child has swallowed magnets, bring them to an emergency room quickly so doctors there can evaluate what to do, Chilton said.
  • Balloons: A symbol of childhood innocence, deflated or popped balloons are the primary cause of suffocation death in children, according to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission. The federal agency recommends keeping all balloons away from children under the age of 3 and having adult supervision when children under 8 are handling uninflated balloons. Parents should immediately pick up the pieces of broken balloons when young children are around.
  • ‘Slime’ products: Anyone who has been around an elementary-school aged child knows about the popularity of slime these days, which can be made at home from easy-to-find ingredients or bought pre-made. U.S. PIRG tested several types of slime and found levels of boron that exceed European Union safety standards.
  • Loud toys: Not every toy is okay for young, or even older, children. If a toy is loud enough to hurt your ears, it can hurt your child’s ears as well.
  • Check the recalls. There were a dozen toys recalled by the CPSC this year, including an iPlay infant rattle and baby rattle socks; a Fisher-Price Power Wheels Barbie Camper sold exclusively at Walmart, a wooden toy vehicle set sold at Target, a wooden grasping toy sold at Lidl grocery stores, a toy instrument set sold on Amazon in 2018 which had unsafe lead levels and an Ubbi connecting bath toy set. Another notable recall this year were reclining infant sleep devices, such as the Fisher-Price Rock n’ Play. The devices were linked to the deaths of 73 infants from 2005 to 2019.

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Sarah Ovaska

Sarah Ovaska is a freelance writer based in Orange County, who has called North Carolina home for well over a decade. She’s reported on criminal justice, education, health and government issues at publications...