With the economy putting a real cramp on budgets this year, more consumers are likely to turn to second-hand stores and Web sites to do their holiday shopping. But when bargain hunting for children's products, experts say, keep in mind the risk of unsafe, recalled items that may have fallen through the regulation cracks.
For more than a year, the Chicago Tribune has reported on the hazards of children's products. The Pulitzer Prize winning work of my colleagues, a series called "Hidden Hazards," led to the widest reform of consumer-product safety laws in a generation and prompted massive recalls. But there are some dangerous products out there that are beyond the government's reach.
Cara Smith, the Illinois Attorney General's deputy chief of staff, said fewer than 7 percent of recalled products are returned to stores. That could leave a lot of unsafe products in circulation, items that often make their way to second-hand shops and online.
"With items like cribs and bassinets, we have seen hundreds and hundreds for sale on Craigslist and most people are shocked that they are recalled," Smith said. "I've talked to hundreds of parents who didn't know they were selling recalled items."
To help get the word out, the attorney general's office has again published its "Play it Safe Shopping Guide," with information on every children's product recalled between Jan. 1 and Nov. 14. The guide features pictures of hundreds of recalled products and is designed to help parents avoid buying dangerous items.
But just because an item hasn't been recalled doesn't mean it's safe, experts say. Parents are the first line of defense in keeping unsafe toys out of children's hands and have to keep their eyes open to potential dangers.
Nancy Cowles, executive director of Kids in Danger, a non-profit group that promotes children's product safety, advises parents to avoid used cribs because missing hardware or damage could easily render them unsafe.
As for toys, Cowles said consumers should not buy brightly painted, imported items because of the risk of lead contamination. The same goes for costume or metal jewelry, which often has been found to have unsafe levels of lead. Lead poisoning in children can cause brain damage and developmental and behavioral problems.
Experts say parents should also avoid soft toys made with polyvinyl chloride plastic. These toys contain chemicals called phthalates, which are hazardous to children's development.
Experts also say it's important to pay close attention to age limits to be sure an item is safe for the child. Children under 3 are particularly at risk for choking from toys with small parts. So be sure to inspect toys to make sure they don't have small parts or pieces that can break and get into little ones' mouths. A rule of thumb is if it fits inside a toilet paper tube it's too small for a child under 3.
So what should you buy?
"Wooden toys, cloth things," Cowles said. "And you can't go wrong with books."