As soon as she had found the perfect present for her niece and dropped it in her shopping cart, Lovey Lane had a nagging worry.
"It just hit me -- this is made in China," the Dundalk resident said, checking the Disney princess costume box and scrutinizing the beads adorning a tiara as a possible hazard. "I thought I'd better put it back."
But the Pirates of the Caribbean ship for her nephew stayed put in the cart, as Lane reasoned that the plastic toy was not likely tainted by lead.
"Of course, we don't know what paint they're using," said Lane, shopping yesterday morning at Toys "R" Us in the Golden Ring area of Baltimore County.
After months of recalls that have seen millions of toys pulled from store shelves -- including classics such as Thomas the Tank Engine, Dora the Explorer and Big Bird -- anxiety was palpable in the toy aisles on the day after Thanksgiving. Warnings of lead paint and choking hazards, and even chemical coatings that could be transformed into a "date rape" drug if ingested, have gotten shoppers' attention.
Parents and relatives are checking product recall lists, avoiding certain manufacturers or switching to European- or U.S.-made toys, or buying the Asian imports with plans to closely supervise their use. Chinese-made products, which make up about 80 percent to 85 percent of toys sold in the U.S., have played a large part in the recalls.
"It's supposed to be a happy time of year, and now we're buying toys for our children that could potentially harm them," said Gina Mercado, a mother of three from Perry Hall.
The drumbeat of recalls -- more than 25 million toys were recalled in the 12 months that ended Sept. 30, according to the U.S. Consumer Products Safety Commission -- have included a wide range of toys, from action figures to plush dolls. Because so many toys have been pulled from shelves, many parents are confused about which products are safe.
RC2 Corp. pulled about 1.5 million Thomas & Friends toys in June because of concerns about dangerous levels of lead. Mattel Inc. followed suit in August, recalling millions of toys because of dangers from high lead content and magnets.
This month, Toronto-based Spin Master Ltd. recalled Aqua Dots craft kits after two children who swallowed the small colored beads got seriously ill from a chemical that can covert into a "date rape" drug.
As shoppers headed out yesterday for the kickoff of the buying season, many said it's hard to feel 100 percent sure of avoiding hazardous toys.
"You can't do too much. You buy the toys that appear safe," said Michael Richer, an Owings Mills parent of an 11-month old.
Karen Toscheff of Hamilton said she has thrown out bunches of her 2-year-old daughter's Chinese-made toys, and this year she is checking manufacturing labels and trying to stick to larger items her toddler is not as likely to put in her mouth.
"It's a big concern," Toscheff said. For the smaller-size toys, "I see if it's made in China -- I don't buy those."
Shannon Watkins, a Baltimore mother of a 1-year-old boy, checked out a Web site of toy recalls before heading to Toys "R" Us yesterday to buy a Diego megaphone with animal sounds.
"I'm getting him nothing small, because he puts it in his mouth," she said.
But even the larger toys had drawbacks, Watkins found, checking to find a "made in China" label on the box of a rocking horse. She had second thoughts about buying that, worrying that parts could break off.
Irene Collins, a Dundalk resident, said it has been more of a challenge to find toys for her great-grandson and grandson this year.
"You just read the back of everything, and if it's made in China, then it goes back on the shelf," Collins said.
Analysts said they expect parents to buy toys despite the recent recalls, snatching up products such as dolls and race cars, because children are clamoring for them.
"When kids are saying 'I want the new Transformer, I want the new Barbie,' they're not going to be happy with a block and a macrame set," said Chris Byrne, an independent toy industry analyst.
But parents are expected to end up spending less, with the recall troubles compounded by rising gas costs and subprime mortgage woes.
"A lot of parents have sort of been waiting to see how this plays out," said Gerrick Johnson, toy industry analyst for BMO Capital Markets.
The apprehension might give an edge to mom-and-pop stores that sell more expensive U.S.- or European-made toys, and where longtime employees and owners can offer reassurance, analysts said.
Richer, the Owings Mills father of an infant, was shopping at Shananigans Toy Shop in North Baltimore after he and his wife, Lisa, decided to avoid mass merchants in favor of independent shops.
"We'd rather pay a little more for quality that's been tested," Lisa Richer said.
Toy safety tips
Children under age 3: Avoid toys with small parts, which pose a choking hazard.
Children under 6: Avoid building sets with small magnets. If they are swallowed, serious injuries or death can occur.
Children under 8: Avoid toys that have sharp edges and points.
Riding toys, skateboards and in-line skates can cause fatal falls. Helmets and safety gear should be worn and sized to fit.
Projectile toys such as air rockets, darts and slingshots, intended for older children, can result in serious eye injuries.
Chargers and adapters should be supervised by adults to prevent burn hazards.
Read toy labels for age and safety recommendations.
To learn about toy recalls or to sign up for e-mail alerts about recalls, go online to www.cpsc.gov.
[Source: U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission]