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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Toy shopping not child’s play


A list of recalled models of Thomas the Tank Engine toys is taped to the display at the White Elephant store in Spokane on Friday.  
 (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)
A list of recalled models of Thomas the Tank Engine toys is taped to the display at the White Elephant store in Spokane on Friday. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

When Ronnita Donohoe saw some of her daughter’s toys on a massive recall list last summer, she did what most worried mothers would do.

She took the playthings away from 4-year-old Isabella and returned them to the store for credit.

“She had a few of them,” recalled Donohoe, a 46-year-old Spokane dental assistant. “She had Barbie and Tanner, she had Dora, she had a little Thomas toy.”

Donohoe thought the matter was settled – until she returned to the Shadle Park center Wal-Mart a week later to find Barbie and Tanner, a play set that features the popular doll and her dog, back on the store shelves.

Donohoe contacted a manager, who said he would pull the offending objects. A week later, however, it happened again. And again, the week after that.

“This started in September and that toy is still on the shelf,” said Donohoe. “I’ve told two different managers four different times and it’s still there.”

Representatives for Wal-Mart and Mattel, the toy’s manufacturer, said the Barbie and Tanner toys now in stock are safe versions of the product recalled in August because of danger posed by tiny magnets attached to plastic “pooper scooper” accessories.

But in a year in which at least 23 million toys have been recalled because of concerns over lead paint, small magnets, choking hazards and other problems, Donohoe and other parents said they’re more wary than ever of products aimed at kids.

“I feel like, how do we know about any of the other toys?” Donohoe said. “I feel a little bit worried about buying stuff from them.”

It’s a worry based in reality, according to toy safety advocates, who are urging parents and other buyers to be especially vigilant this year. The recalls, including those at the nation’s top toy-maker, have revealed gaps in the system that regulates toy safety.

“There have been multiple failures from the top down. It’s just a mess,” said Elisa Odabashian, West Coast director of Consumers Union, the nonprofit publisher of Consumer Reports magazine.

“It’s because our watchdog government agencies have failed us, completely, utterly. They don’t have enough money, inspectors, political clout. It’s broken, broken, broken.”

That view is disputed by toy industry advocates, who observe that only a fraction of the 3 billion toys sold in the United States each year are recalled or cause harm.

Twenty children younger than 15 died and more than 202,000 were injured by toys in 2005, according to the latest figures from the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission.

Nevertheless, it’s up to parents to be front-line inspectors for safety, said Jim Swartz, director of World Against Toys Causing Harm – WATCH – an advocacy group based in Boston.

“It really comes down to the awareness and the education to make good choices when it comes to toy shopping,” he said. “We’re sort of left as the watchdogs trying to make these difficult decisions.”

Parents must be aware of problems with specific toys by checking recall lists, Swartz said. But they also must be aware of the general hazards that the cautions address.

“It’s likely there are many toys out there that have not been recalled or that may have been recalled and it wasn’t widely publicized,” Swartz said.

For instance, parents should inspect toys for small, detachable parts that could choke a toddler, or long strings that could strangle an older child. They should understand the dangers posed by tiny magnets if they’re swallowed by children, sometimes leading to perforated or blocked intestines.

That role leaves Donohoe wondering what to make of the recall of her daughter’s Barbie and Tanner play set. She returned the toy to Wal-Mart after hearing of the recall on the “Today” show.

In August, Mattel withdrew about 683,000 Barbie and Tanner sets because magnets attached to the plastic scooper could come loose. They were among about 9.3 million Mattel toys recalled because of concerns over the small, powerful magnets that can cause serious harm and death if swallowed by children.

Since 2005, at least one U.S. child has died and 86 have suffered injuries caused by magnets, according to the Consumer Product Safety Commission.

More than 100 Barbie and Tanner sets were stacked on the Shadle Center Wal-Mart store’s shelves as holiday shoppers swarmed this week. On each box, the old code for the recalled product had been covered with a new model number and tagged with a new UPC sticker.

The new toys are safe, said Jennifer Mennell, a spokeswoman for Mattel. They were subject to new, stricter safety regulations and “enhanced magnet retention systems” put in place after recalls last year.

“If a magnetic product is not part of a recall, it is because it provides the essential protection provided by our new requirements,” Mennell said. “Safety is our main concern at Mattel. … We would never put recalled items back on store shelves.”

That action meets Consumer Product Safety Commission standards, said Julie Vallese, a spokeswoman for the agency.

“The product can be put back on the shelf for sale when the safety hazard has been addressed,” said Vallese, adding that she could not address concerns about specific toys.

Similarly, manufacturers may reuse packaging as long as it’s clear to the consumer that it’s a new product, Vallese noted.

That puzzles Donohoe, who wonders why she should believe that the new scoopers are any safer than the old ones.

“That’s the dumbest thing I ever heard,” she said. “A magnet is a magnet. A kid is going to pick it up and put it in their mouth.”

Recalls are just one measure of a toy’s safety, noted Donohoe and other Inland Northwest parents and grandparents. Gwen Druckrey, 43, of Spokane, pays attention to recall notices but also checks to see where toys were made before she buys them for her three grandchildren. “I have rejected toys from China, most recently due to all the recalls for lead paint,” she said.

Searching out locally produced, well-made toys is a solution advocated by Stann Grater, 58, of Spokane.

“We are and will be paying in many different ways for these cheap and inferior products,” said Grater. “It seems that the American public is so narrow-minded that it looks only at the price of goods, not the quality. Good quality costs more and lasts longer. I feel that these recalls are just the tip of the iceberg.”

Others, however, say that while they pay attention to recalls and other government notices, they rely mostly on the oldest toy safety system around: common sense.

“We grew up without air bags. We grew up with shoddy painted Lincoln Logs. We grew up with rocks and sticks,” wrote Spokane resident Maura Kegley, 43, the mother of boys ages 14 and 17. “Some of us got our eyes poked out, some of us got trips to emergency to have something dislodged from an orifice, but it was all part of growing up. It was part of learning to take responsibility for your actions.”

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