PITTSFIELD -- Children's toys may have colorful names, come in appealing colors or sizes, and make interesting sounds.

But buyer, beware: Those same objects can often become choking hazards, contain high levels of toxic chemicals or be excessively noisy.

That was the message from the Massachusetts Public Interest Research Group on Tuesday when it released Trouble in Toyland, the group's 27th annual toy safety report.

The annual toy safety report has led to the recall of at least 150 toys and spawned other actions to get dangerous toys off store shelves since it was first released in 1985.

Using food-shaped toys, Caroline Webster demonstrates how a parent can test for a choking hazard with an empty toilet paper tube. Any item that can fit
Using food-shaped toys, Caroline Webster demonstrates how a parent can test for a choking hazard with an empty toilet paper tube. Any item that can fit through the tube, she says, is a hazard. (Ben Garver / Berkshire Eagle Staff)

"While toys are safer than ever before, parents and caregivers still need to watch out for common hazards when shopping for toys," said Caroline Webster, MASS PIRG's campus organizer at Berkshire Community College and the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts.

In 2008, the Consumer Pro tection Safety Commission was revamped to better protect youngsters from unsafe toys. In 2011, the commission established a publicly accessible database of potential hazards at www.safer products.gov. Consumers can also download a free smartphone app on toy safety at toyssafety.mobi.

During a news conference at BCC, Webster used three toys found in stores this past month to demonstrate how they could become safety hazards. One that contained several small pieces of plastic "food" represented a choking hazard, while another contained a decibel level that was harmful to young children.

A third example showed how some toys contain high levels of phthalates, chemicals that make plastic softer. According to MASSPIRG, the U.S. Envi ronmental Agency has found that the cumulative effects of different phthalates can lead to an increase in premature delivery or reproductive effects.

Caroline Webster of MASSPIRG identifies this ‘Dora the Explorer’ backpack as having unsafe levels of phthalates, a toxin, during
Caroline Webster of MASSPIRG identifies this ‘Dora the Explorer’ backpack as having unsafe levels of phthalates, a toxin, during MASSPIRG’s annual ‘Trouble in Toyland’ consumer report. (Ben Garver / Berkshire Eagle Staff)

Webster said the new toy safety law also imposed tough safety limits for the amount of lead and other metal in both paint and children's products. However, MASSPIRG recently found one nationally sold toy, the Morphbot, sold at Dollar Tree Stores, that contained 180 parts per million of lead, significantly higher than the regulatory standard of 100 ppm.

State Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier, D-Pittsfield, who attended MASSPIRG's local event on Tuesday, said toys need to be regulated because most parents don't know how to test for hazards.

"What concerns me is I actually don't understand what a phthalate is, and I don't know how to go to the store and measure the decibels on a key chain," Farley-Bouvier said. "So that's why we need regulation to help parents, help all consumers, help their kids. There's not a parent out there that doesn't want to keep their kids safe. They just need to have the tools to be able to do it."

Webster suggested that parents use the cardboard cylinder inside of a roll of toilet paper to determine if a toy represents a choking hazard. An item is considered dangerous if it can fit inside the cylinder.

"That's a great tool that every parent can use," Farley-Bouvier said.

To reach Tony Dobrowolski:
tdobrowolski@berkshireeagle.com,
or (413) 496-6224.