updated 11/12/2008 2:04:56 PM ET 2008-11-12T19:04:56

Federal safety officials worry that the economic downturn will drive discount-seeking parents to buy used toys tainted by lead or with dangerous designs.

Government safety officials are particularly concerned that money-conscious parents will purchase holiday gifts from secondhand, online sellers, who may not be aware of safety issues.

“In stretching today’s dollar, we do not want you to sacrifice safety,” acting Consumer Product Safety Commission chair Nancy Nord said Wednesday.

She encouraged parents to research any products they buy secondhand for prior recalls.

At a press conference Wednesday, Nord stressed the CPSC’s increased vigilance in targeting unsafe toys.

“The real good news this season, is the fact that the agency is inspecting more, but we are finding fewer violations,” Nord said. “And we’re seeing that across the board, but certainly with respect to lead paint.”

She noted that a new port-inspections program resulted in 238 seized shipments of toys, which were denied entry for safety violations.

However this import surveillance program is conducted by just nine people.

Recalls of toys or children’s products because of lead paint or lead content are down sharply, from a record 112 in 2007 to 64 this year. There were 20 lead recalls in 2006 and only 13 in 2005.

“I don’t think at this point that anyone who makes a toy is looking to save a little bit extra on the margin by using cheap materials,” says Michael Green, executive director of the Center for Environmental Health in Oakland, Calif. “But I am not confident that they’re all going to be able to do the job and get the lead out.”

The number of lead recalls this year worries Nancy Cowles, executive director of Chicago-based Kids In Danger.

“Progress is being made, but parents still need to be concerned about brightly painted or brightly colored plastic toys,” said Cowles. “There’s still lead out there on products.”

Even though lead has been banned in paint in the United States since the 1970s, it has still turned up in millions of toys in recent years. Lead poisoning can cause irreversible learning disabilities, behavioral problems and, at very high levels, seizures, coma and death.

Nord says parents should feel reassured.

“It’s very important that parents have a sense of perspective here. There are 3 billion toys sold each year and the vast majority are safe for children,” Nord said in an interview with the Associated Press. An AP analysis of Consumer Product Safety Commission data shows most of this year’s recalls were not from the big toy makers, but from smaller companies, and most of the products were made in China. The rest came from Vietnam, India, Peru, Taiwan and Korea.

“We always recommend to buy from reputable retailers,” said Alan Korn, director of public policy for Safe Kids Worldwide. “And that can be the big-box stores. But it can also be your local mom-and-pop, someone who really cares about the safety of the products.”

Last year’s record recalls spurred action this summer in Congress, which passed new rules aimed at ensuring nearly lead-free toys and children’s products. But the widely praised limits don’t kick in early enough to affect this holiday shopping season.

Mattel and Hasbro say their products are already rigorously tested for lead.

Both companies test the paint and other raw materials used in their toys before manufacturing. They then take test samples during the manufacturing process and later test the finished product. Mattel increased random inspections at Chinese factories amid a string of recalls last year, including a recall of more than 600,000 Barbie accessory toys.

Nord initially resisted the new consumer safety bill. She told Congress last fall the new lead limits would divert resources from existing enforcement, but has since praised the new law.

The current limit on lead paint on a children’s product is 600 parts per million. The new law will lower that to 90 ppm next summer. Children’s advocates say 600 ppm is dangerous, especially for young babies who often mouth toys.

There is no federal limit on the lead content within toys. The new law imposes one, phased in, beginning with a 600 ppm limit in February. That would drop to 300 ppm in August and then to 100 ppm, if the commission determines that’s feasible.

The new law also requires mandatory third-party toy testing; bans a type of chemical, called phthalates, widely used to make plastic products softer and more flexible; and strengthens the power of and authorizes increased funding for the commission.

The CPSC also cautioned parents about other toy-related risks:

  • The importance of helmets and safety gear for scooters, in-line skates and skateboards.
  • Avoiding toys with small parts and small balls for children under three.
  • Keeping children under eight away from un-inflated or broken balloons.
  • The danger of swallowing small, powerful magnets in building or play sets, which aren’t recommended for children under six.
  • The need for adult supervision when toys require battery chargers and adapters.

© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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