Saturday, January 16, 2010

Tis the Season for Toy Recalls...

I got an email about the disastrous MacLaren stroller recall recently from one of those ‘helpful’ parenting websites. (For those of you who didn’t hear, there had been twelve – count ‘em TWELVE reports of fingertip amputations by infants who had gotten their fingers caught in the closing hinges. Why twelve before a recall?) The email also included a question something along the lines of ‘Which other safety recalled toys do YOU have in your home?’ or something equally alarmist. In the name of research I couldn’t resist having a look.

The list was rather boring. Which, in an odd way was disappointing. I’m not saying that I derive any sort of pleasure out of other people’s injuries – well, other than in the ‘Funniest Home Videos’ sort of way. But there is a certain amount of entertainment value in the seeing what went wrong.

Most of the things on the list were due to manufacturing and design flaws, eg, loose buttons or parts, cords, lead paint, parts that broke off too easily and the like. Nowadays toys are mostly recalled due to faulty manufacturing, not faulty ideas.

Let’s travel back in time to the 70s, when in the weeks following Christmas, toy recalls were in the top headlines on the nightly news as the post-holiday carnage was recounted:
Good Evening, I’m Kent Kennerson and here are today’s top stories. Reports of injuries from Mattel’s top selling ‘Knife-Fighter Street Warrior’ kit have been reported in the post-Christmas fallout…’

I can remember sitting catatonic, waiting for the newsreader to finish the report, imagining some little boy being mauled by his own Rockem Sockem robots who finally turned their anger on their puppet master. I would be catatonic with impending disappointment waiting to hear someone had been injured by the Barbie camper-van. I imagined chaining myself to mine, should it have found itself on the dreaded recall list. No way would I have parted with that, and Ken would’ve backed me up.

I began to wonder if it was just nostalgia, or if toys were more dangerous back in our day: and not because of a few dangling cords, but because Larry in Marketing convinced his team that the ‘Johnny Junior Electrician Explorer Kit’ was destined to become the top-seller of the season. Reminiscent of the SNL skit, ‘Bag O’Glass’, there seemed to be more of an element of danger involved in some toys - lawn jarts are just one example. And let’s just admit it: if fun and danger didn’t go together, they’d be no bungee jumping or roller coasters.

So again in the name of research I consulted the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission for a stroll down memory lane. Here are extracts of actual press releases from recalled toys:

1977: "Tumble Stones, Model #1901 Rock Polisher" and "Deluxe Double Barrel, Tumble Stones, Model #1902 Rock Polisher,” manufactured by RAPCO, Division of Martin Yale Industries, Chicago, Illinois, fail to comply with Federal regulations for electrically-operated toys and are banned from sale.
Although no injuries associated with these rock polishers have been reported, both fail to provide protection from moving parts; contain live parts which are accessible; have electric power cords which are not adequately secured to the unit; and the cords are shorter than the minimum required length of 5 feet.

A rock polisher for a toy? I suppose in order to make it fun there had to be some element of danger – in this case, the risk of electrocuting one’s self or the chance of jamming one’s fingers in the high speed moving belts. My cousins had one of these from the Sears catalogue. As I type this with nine fingers, I’m happy to report that it was the source of many good times.

1980 – “Fun Fountain” toys. The toy consists of a clown hat and head which attaches onto the end of a garden hose so that the hat rises in the air when water flows through the clown's head. Children may be inclined to peer into the water outlet and the stream of water could cause serious eye injuries, especially in communities with high water pressure.CPSC so far has been informed of two consumer complaints since June, 1979, involving a six-year-old boy and a seven-year- old boy who suffered eye injuries when struck at close distance by water emitted from the "Fun Fountain" toys.

Remember this one? Never went near the thing due to my fear of clowns. Scandal could’ve been avoided with a disclaimer on box and some complementary ‘kooky-klown’ eyepatches.

1979 - Toy Telephone recall. The sets include two battery-operated toy telephones connected by means of a detachable cord. The two-prong plugs at each end of the cord so closely resemble genuine electrical plugs that children may try to force them into household sockets, thereby receiving severe shocks or burns.
While Montgomery Ward has received no consumer complaints of injuries from the cords, CPSC staff reports that an 8-year-old girl was burned earlier this year when she forced a plug from a similar phone set (which was distributed by another company) into a wall electrical outlet.

This girl was eight - EIGHT! Way past the usual danger stage. I'm thinking a little Darwinism doesn't go astray from time to time. All of a sudden Hasbro’s ‘Li’l Elves Cobbler Kit’ (complete with tacks, hammer and toxic-fume glue) isn’t looking quite so dangerous as this little menacing telephone number.

1985 – “Official Chopper 9”. Approximately 30,000 "Official Chopper 9's" were sold between July of 1984 and January 1985 in Hawaii only. The firm and the Commission are aware of four eye and face laceration incidents in which the rotor blades either flew off the toy, striking the user or bystander, or the entire helicopter descended rapidly, striking the person in the face. The incidents happened in October 1984, and Whimports voluntarily stopped sales of the toy in January 1985.

‘Voluntarily’ stopped sales? Bless. This really was the good old days since clearly no one was suing. Note that even if the blades didn’t fly off the toy, you still weren’t safe: ‘…or the entire helicopter descended rapidly, striking the person in the face.’ Funny how they just slipped in that information. But there’s nothing like unpredictability to add to the danger element.

Things were perhaps more 'dangerous' then. We didn’t stay in car seats till we got our licenses, there were no woodchip-covered playgrounds, and the only people who wore helmets were the kids with special needs (and referring to them as retarded wasn’t in any way mean-spirited). Everything has become so…sanitised. Parent’s fears are manipulated to hysteric proportions – I’ll save my rant on the child-proofing industry for another time. It's worth noting that of all the reports I trawled through very few of them contained reports of any really serious or long-term injuries.

Ok, we may be sparing our children from a few scraped knees and elbows, but it makes me wonder if all this sanitization is coming at a price. In making all the decisions for them, we crippling the growth of one of the most important attributes for any adult to possess: common sense.

On that note, I’m going to ask my 5 year old to bake me a cake with the light bulb in the mini-bake oven. And I’m just going to warn her it gets hot.