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Smart Santas Give Safe Christmas Toys

The following Healthy Kids column originally appeared in the December 06, 2004 edition of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

There are times that a toy can mean much more than just fun and games. Take for instance the case of a six-year-old boy who was injured last year by a seemingly harmless plaything. He had been playing with a water yo-yo toy when the ball burst, spraying some of the liquid contents into his eyes. Glitter in the liquid scratched the boy's eyes and required a trip to the emergency room at SSM Health Cardinal Glennon Children's Hospital.

“The water yo-yo was a gift from his aunt, and I didn’t think anything of it,” the boy’s mother said. “You just never expect your child to be injured by a toy.”

This boy was lucky; he recovered fully from his encounter with the water yo-yo. He was one of nearly 400 American children (including 11 in Missouri) who have been injured by water yo-yo toys since the toy emerged as a fad in early 2003. The water yo-yo, marketed under a handful of names, is essentially a liquid-filled ball at the end of a rubbery tether that can stretch up to five feet. More than half of the injuries attributable to water yo-yos involved suffocation or strangulation when the tether became wrapped around a young child’s throat.

The toy has been banned for sale in a number of countries, but not yet in the United States. Some retailers, such as Walgreens and Toys “R” Us, have voluntarily pulled water yo-yos from their shelves. The water yo-yo is included in a report titled “Trouble in Toyland,” released recently by the Missouri Public Interest Research Group ( MoPIRG). The report is well-timed, as adults begin searching crowded malls and the Internet for Christmas gifts that will delight the youngsters in their lives.

In 2014, more than 250,000 people in the United States sought treatment in hospital emergency departments for toy-related injuries; more than one third of those injured were under the age of 5 years. Nationwide, 11 children under the age of 15 died in 2014 from toy-related injuries.

“Even one toy-related death is too many, because these deaths are preventable,” says Ellen Treimel, a MoPIRG consumer advocate.

For guidance in selecting toys, Treimel offers the MoPIRG report online at Other groups offering online advice for parents include the American Academy of Pediatrics (, the Consumer Product Safety Commission (, and the National SafeKIDS Campaign (

Nearly all toy injuries are relatively minor, but the rare case can result in serious injury or even death. It definitely pays to be informed when selecting toys for your child. Toys such as marbles and balloons present a choking hazard to small children because of their natural tendency to put things in their mouths and the risk of balloons exploding. The Child Safety Protection Act, a federal law enacted in 1995, requires manufacturers to place warning labels on toys that pose a choking hazard to young children.

“Toys can be helpful developmentally for children, when used age-appropriately.  Books and other toys that encourage use of imagination are best, because they can enhance a child’s overall development,” says Dr. Timothy Fete, Director of General Academic Pediatrics at Cardinal Glennon and Professor of Pediatrics at Saint Louis University School of Medicine. “Toys that encourage fun and potentially educational interaction with parents and other adult caregivers are ideal, and they need not be expensive.”

Most toys are quite safe when played with appropriately, but can become dangerous if they are misused or given to children who are too young to play with them. The St. Louis SAFE KIDS Coalition recommends the following tips when selecting holiday gifts this season:

Select Safe Toys

  • When selecting a toy for your child, avoid the following:
  • Toys with small removable parts, which can pose a choking hazard, especially to children under 3 years. Use a small parts tester (available at a toy or baby specialty store) to measure the size of the toy or part. If the piece fits entirely inside the tube, it is considered a choking hazard.
  • Toys with sharp points or edges. Children may unintentionally cut themselves or another person.
  • Toys that produce loud noises. Toy guns, toy telephones and high-volume portable cassette or CD players can permanently impair a child’s hearing. 
  • Propelled toy darts and other projectiles. Propelled toys can cause cuts or serious eye injuries.
  • Toys with strings, straps or cords longer than seven inches. Long strings and cords could wrap around a child’s neck and unintentionally strangle him or her.
  • Electrical toys, which are a burn hazard. Avoid toys with a heating element for children under 8 years.
  • Toy cap guns. Paper roll, strip or ring caps can be ignited by the slightest friction and cause serious burns.

Follow Age Recommendations

Labels recommending that a toy is not suitable for children under a certain age are there to inform parents that the toy may pose a safety hazard for younger children. Pay close attention to these labels and follow them when selecting toys for your child.

Give the Proper Safety Gear

Remember that a gift is not complete unless protective gear is included. In this country in 1999, 173 children were killed in bicycle-related accidents and injuries involving wheeled riding toys accounted for more than half a million emergency room visits for children aged 14 and under.

Scooters have been popular Yuletide gifts in recent years, but may be overshadowed this year by gasoline-powered mini-motorcycles, also known as “pocket bikes.”
Helmets and protective padding, such as elbow and knee pads, are a vital part of the package with wheeled gifts. When you add gasoline-powered engines, adult supervision also becomes an important part of the equation.

Gift-Surf Wisely

Online shoppers should be aware that Internet-based retailers aren't required to post hazard warnings on toys that might pose dangers to young children. While some Web businesses voluntarily post such warnings, a MoPIRG survey of Web sites found that the majority don't. When in doubt, turn to the Web sites listed above for safety information or check product information in real, brick-and-mortar stores.

Playing Santa can be hard work. But with careful attention to safety, you can be sure your children will enjoy their gifts safely on Christmas morning and beyond.

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