Wednesday, Nov. 28, 2007

Toy recalls cast a cloud over holiday shopping

Some county shoppers think twice about what to buy for gifts

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Laurie DeWitt⁄The Gazette
Alejandra Peraza and Laura Peraza, both 3, of Potomac look at toys at Tree Top Kids.
Montgomery County shoppers hit the malls Friday to conquer the annual post-Thanksgiving sales. But for some shoppers with children in mind this holiday season, the toy aisle seemed like a minefield.

‘‘I’m trying to stay with what’s safe, and books are safe,” said Kathryn Grumbach of Bethesda.

Grumbach shopped for children’s gifts Friday at the Tree Top Kids store in Cabin John. Thinking about the recalls, she eschewed the playthings she would have otherwise given to a relative’s 3- and 5-year-old children.

Grumbach said she bought the children toys last year that ended up on the long list of U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) recalls. This year, she is boycotting costume jewelry or play tool sets on her shopping trips.

The store she chose recently came under new ownership by Tree Top Kids and, as a result, has changed its inventory since last year’s holiday season. The aisles are stocked with more clothing and books.

About three or four customers per week ask about the toy recalls to make sure a gift is safe, said Tebarek Waktola, the store’s receiving manager.

‘‘We assure them that we do stay current with the news” about recalls, he said. Waktola said the store’s employees pull recalled items off of shelves during the overnight shift.

The CPSC recalled more than 50 toys and more than 70 non-toy infant and child items during the last six months, according to commission records. The recalls followed five infant deaths and a mélange of injuries ranging in severity from bumps and bruises to skull fractures, severed fingers and more than 70 burns. One highly publicized product, Aqua Dot beads, were recalled after two children ate the beads and fell into comas.

Regina Morales and Claudia Jordan, both of Silver Spring, hadn’t been thinking about the toy recalls on Friday while they strolled the Montgomery mall (Westfield Montgomery) K.B. Toys store in Bethesda.

But when asked whether their gift-buying plans for their niece were affected by the recalls, they immediately looked down at the pink boxes in their arms.

Jordan held a box of faux painted jewelry for a little girl.

‘‘It just comes as second nature” to rush into stores with a shopping list and ‘‘knock it out” during the pre-holiday rush, Jordan explained as she and Morales placed the boxes back on their shelves.

‘‘We’re going to go buy clothes, yeah! Shoes, yeah!” Jordan said, giving a high-five to Morales and heading out of the store.

But avoiding toys may not solve all shoppers’ problems. Not all products pulled from shelves have been toys. Clothing and shoes, sleeping furniture and other common gifts for children were recalled this year because of dangerous materials or craftsmanship.

KB Toys and other major toy outlets have pushed for toy safety, issuing voluntary recalls in cooperation with the CPSC.

The vast majority of CPSC toy and child product recalls happened before any injuries or incidents were reported to the commission, according to commission records.

Nevertheless, many parents said they’re sticking to gifts they see as lower risk: toys not made in China and non-plastic toys.

U.S. Rep. Christopher Van Hollen Jr. (D-Dist. 8) of Kensington has co-sponsored bills to buttress toy safety by requiring companies to test and certify toys before putting them on the market and giving the CPSC more enforcement power.

The toy recall was a concern for shoppers in Rockville on Black Friday, as parents and grandparents turned over boxes to check for products made in China.

‘‘Yup, made in China,” Priscilla Pulliam of Silver Spring said while shopping in Toy Kingdom.

About 80 percent of toys in the United States are made in China, Carlos Aulestia, owner of Toy Kingdom in Rockville Town Square, estimated.

His store, however, buys products mostly from European toy companies. He said that while some of the products are still made in China, they are held to a higher standard in Europe than in the U.S.

Toy Kingdom does not carry toys made by Fisher-Price or its parent company Mattel, which recently recalled millions of Chinese-made toys due to lead paint hazards.

‘‘We haven’t sold one item that has been recalled,” Aulestia said.

Toy Kingdom did receive a shipment of Thomas the Tank Engine toys, which were also recalled early this year for having lead paint hazards, but the store did not even get the chance to sell one before it had to ship it back to the manufacturer.

‘‘Every day customers come in with concerns [about recalled toys],” Aulestia said. To calm their concerns, he shows them letters he receives from the toy companies he buys from that reassure their products have been re-tested.

‘‘Some people don’t care. If it was made in China, they’re not buying it,” he said. But others, he said, find comfort in seeing the letters and knowing the toys are deemed safe.

Edwin Acajabon, who was shopping at Toys-R-Us on Rockville Pike for toy helicopters with his son, said he does his homework before hitting the stores.

‘‘We check the Consumer Report lists before we buy anything,” Acajabon said. ‘‘We definitely make sure the toys we purchase are not on the recall list.”

However, some shoppers say they do not let the recall scare slow their holiday shopping.

‘‘I watch to see what’s recalled, but it doesn’t make me ban all toys from China,” said Anhchi Le, who focuses more on buying age-appropriate toys. ‘‘I’m more concerned about getting my Christmas shopping done.”

Staff Writers Meghan Tierney and Capital News Service writer Michael Walsh contributed to this report.

Check that toys are safe

The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission updates the list of recalls at its Web site:

For toy recalls,⁄cpscpub⁄prerel⁄category⁄toy.html

The commission offers real-time updates via e-mail, wireless devices, mp3 recordings and RSS feeds.

Consumers can also report unsafe products through the commission’s Web site.