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What's the hot toy trend this season? In our house, it's no toys at all. We're passing out of Tweendom and the best gifts now come with tailored pockets and USB cords. For the first time, Ye Olde Toy Shoppe isn't on our holiday itinerary. That's a relief because a new report says many toys stuff stockings with unhealthy humbug.

It's a bit of a holiday tradition in its own less-than-merry way: Each year the U.S. Public Interest Research Groups breaks out the test kits and wades into the toy aisle to look for hidden perils wrapped up as innocent playthings. And they always seem to find those halls decked with boughs of folly.

That's the gist of the 32nd annual Trouble in Toyland report. It's again found some grinches toiling in Santa's workshop churning out toys that play with our kids' health. From the choking risks and endocringe-worthy materials to menacing magnets and decibel levels, there are some real turkeys out there.

Here's some shopping advice:

  • Look out for lead. It's still found in imported toys, and not always where you think—in addition to paints and metals, lead pops up in plastic as a softener. Avoid costume jewelry, painted toys, and vinyl products or check them with a test kit.
  • Don't be a cad about cadmium. Lead is gone from many toys. But it's frequently replaced by cadmium, another toxic heavy metal. Be therefore forewarned: a "lead-free" label may just mean there's cadmium instead.
  • No vinyl and that's final. Toys made of soft vinyl frequently contain toxic phthalates. Polymer clays, too. Choose those without or go without.
  • Watch the small parts when giving to little elves. The rule of thumb is nothing smaller than 1.75 inches for children under six. Apply it not just to loose items but to anything that looks like it could accidentally break off. Shop with a toilet tissue tube—anything that passes through is too small.
  • Don't be attracted to magnets. Tiny but powerful neodymium magnets now appear in all kinds of toys. If two or more are accidentally ingested, they'll work overtime to connect inside the body, and that's repellent for many reasons.
  • Button up the button batteries. They're another choking hazard, and the acid inside can be fatal, too. Make sure they're completely secure in any toys that use them.
  • Hear this: Children's ears are extremely sensitive, and many modern electronic toys these days produce damaging decibel levels. If a toy seems too loud it probably is. Cover the speakers with tape, removes the batteries, or give something that gives the gift of peace and quiet instead.
  • Cut the cord. Watch out for cords with knobs or beads and clothing with drawstrings. Both can get tangled on objects and/or each other to create strangulation hazards.
  • We're not making this up: play cosmetics can contain phthalates, xylene, toluene and other chemical toxins. And makeup in my opinion is conceptually bogus anyway. Just don't go there.

Keep these tips in your sleigh when you shop, and spread toys to the world that will jingle everyone's bells safely!


Geoff the Inkslinger and his Dog

The Inkslinger has written about environmental issues for over 20 years and is a freelance writer for some of America's most iconoclastic companies and non-profits. His true loves include nature, music of the Americana/rock and roll variety, interior design, books, old things, good stories, pagan rituals, and his wife of 24 years, with whom he lives in an undisclosed chemical-free rural Vermont location along with his teenage daughter and two infinitely hilarious Australian shepherds!