Is That Doll Gonna Kill Me?

The ins and outs of toy safety testing.

Thomas the Tank Engine. Click image to expand.
Thomas the Tank Engine

The manufacturer of Thomas the Tank Engine trains recalled some of the toys last week after discovering that they were decorated with lead paint. Like many other toys that have been recalled in recent months, the trains were made in China. Don’t toys have to pass safety tests before they hit store shelves?

No. Toys sold in America are required by law to meet safety standards, but all presale testing is voluntary. Some of the biggest no-nos—selling a toy that’s a choking hazard or using lead paint—are covered by federal laws like the Federal Hazardous Substances Act and the Child Safety Protection Act. When it comes to other safety matters, the federal government and local governments will often look to the voluntary standards set by ASTM International (originally known as the American Society for Testing and Materials).

Since no toy manufacturer wants to get stuck making an embarrassing recall, most companies have their products evaluated by independent testing labs before they go on sale. The labs run tests to make sure products comply with specifications laid out by ASTM, the group that sets “consensus” standards agreed to by manufacturers for everything from toys to ladders to microscopes. If the toy passes muster, the testing lab will draw up a letter of approval, which then goes out to retailers. Many stores won’t buy a product unless they’re satisfied that it meets these standards.

What kinds of tests does a toy have to pass? The generally accepted standards, testing methods, and labeling requirements are laid out in an ASTM document called the Standard Consumer Safety Specification for Toy Safety. Every kind of toy must generally be clean and “free from infestation,” and it can’t have sharp edges or exposed bolts. If the toy is meant for children under 3, it can’t have any “small parts”—defined as pieces that can fit inside a 1-inch by 2.25-inch cylinder. *

Specific toys often have specific safety rules. A toy gun, for instance, has to be marked with a “blaze orange” muzzle or plug, or its exterior must be “white, bright red, bright orange, bright yellow, bright green, bright blue, bright pink, or bright purple.” If a toy includes chemicals, like a coat of paint, those chemicals can’t be hazardous. Toys that make noise can’t exceed certain decibel limits.

There are also “use and abuse” tests, which ensure that a toy can stand up to the wear and tear of ownership. These include an “impact test” to make sure no small parts fall off when a toy gets knocked around; a “tumble test” for wheeled vehicles, during which testers push them down a short flight of stairs; and a “tension test” to make sure stuffed animals or beanbag toys don’t come apart at the seams.

The Consumer Product Safety Commission, the government agency that enforces standards violations, makes a list of recalled children’s products every holiday season. (It also publishes a comprehensive list of recalls dating back to 1974, as well as a searchable database.) But consumer-advocacy groups argue that many of the toys that stay on shelves are also dangerous. For example, the U.S. Public Interest Research Group released the “Dangerous Toy List” (pdf) for 2006.

If a company learns that its product is unsafe—be it from a complaint, a reported injury, or quality-control data—it must immediately tell the CPSC. A knowing failure to report can result in fines or, as a last resort, a forced recall.That said, the vast majority of recalls are voluntary.

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Explainer thanks Janell Mayo Duncan of Consumers Union and Carter Keithley of the Toy Industry Association.

Correction, June 22, 2007: This piece originally stated that the cylinder is designed to simulate a child’s esophagus. It’s not actually meant to simulate one body part or another, but rather to contain any object that could conceivably be swallowed. (Return to the corrected sentence.)