In The Public Interest: Trouble in Toyland

11/24/2010 03:29 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Friday marks the first big shopping day of the holiday season. On "Black Friday," consumers will begin lining up outside the malls and big box stores in the wee hours of the morning in the hope of purchasing the hot new toy for the child in their lives.

For 25 years, U.S. PIRG's Trouble in Toyland report has reminded consumers that, even in our hurry to fulfill the wishes on holiday lists, we have to keep safety in mind by providing examples of potential toy hazards on store shelves. Our Tips for Toy Safety provide a good guide for shopping for children.

The good news is that we've taken major steps forward in keeping kids safer.

The bad news is that there are still hazards in the toy box. In our report, we highlighted the limitations of existing standards for choking and toxic hazards.

DC area mom Jennifer Tapper knows firsthand that children can choke on toys that pass the federal government's standard for "small parts."

Jennifer called U.S. PIRG in October to tell us about the "Baby's First Train" that her son Jack received for his first birthday.

At first glance, it's a great toy for a one year old -- bright primary colors and simple construction.

Unfortunately the train has removable blocks that are just a fraction of an inch longer than the Consumer Product Safety Commission's "small parts" standard.

Jack played with the train like any curious toddler would -- he took out the blocks and put one in his mouth.

It's fortunate that Jennifer saw Jack choking on the block and took quick action to perform the Heimlich maneuver. Her pediatrician told her that, had she looked away, she never would have heard him and he would have tried to push the toy further down his throat causing it to get stuck and block his airway. She told her that he could have died.

Other parents' stories don't end as well. Between 2005 and 2009, 41 children died choking on toys, small parts of toys, balloons or balls.

Thoughts of what might have happened to Jack drove Jennifer to take action. She called the company. She called the Consumer Product Safety Commission. She called U.S. PIRG.

We found the train still available for sale and included it in our annual list of potential toy hazards.

To be clear, the train does NOT violate the CPSC's small parts standard. And that's the problem.

For years, we have called on the CPSC to make the standards for small parts larger and more protective of children. We have told parents to use a more reliable test of whether a toy poses a choking hazard -- an empty toilet paper roll. If a toy or part of a toy fits in that tube, it is too small for a child under 3.

Admittedly this rule of thumb is not all that scientific, but in the absence of a more protective standard, it's the best advice we can give to consumers.

The best advice we can give to the CPSC and to toy manufacturers is that, when it comes to toddlers who put everything in their mouth, bigger is better. This week, we once again called on the CPSC to make their "small parts" choking test more protective.

Consumers can join our call for the CPSC to better protect young children from choking hazards by signing our on-line petition at