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The Christmas toy buying season is here. And the chief concern of the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), it seems, is not to greatly improve its toy safety duties; it is how to respond to consumer groups annual criticism of the agency’s dereliction.

Each year, toy safety lawyer, Edward M. Swartz of Boston, is invited on television to display the “killer” toys of the year. These are inviting toys that burn, cut, crush or asphyxiate little children. The public exposure alerts parents to these brands and to ways to choose toys safely for their offspring.

Poorly designed or constructed toys do a lot of damage. Hundreds die and thousands are injured yearly. Knowing this, Congress passed the product safety legislation in 1970 which included authority to issue toy safety standards and require recalls.

The authority, however, was flawed with procedural roadblocks that make the CPSC a mockery of a regulatory agency. To make matters worse, the agency was run under Reagan and Bush by people who wanted to run it into the ground. (Typically, the Clinton regime still does not have its person in charge yet, having taken months to nominate Ann Brown who is yet to be confirmed by the


Now comes a new toy safety report by the private Institute for Injury Reduction (IIR), a group that believes in lawsuits by victims against the wrongdoers who harm them. According to IIR, one of every six toys on store shelves is unsafe and yet 99 percent of them are not recalled nor inspected by the CPSC.

IIR says that such toys are not just produced by small companies here and abroad. It names toys made by Disney, Barney, Fisher-Price and Toys-R-Us. For example, the consumer group takes to task Fisher-Price for producing dolls that have been involved in seven choking fatalities without changing the design to avoid such a tragedy.

IIR’s report list numerous toys as hazardous. One is Barney on a Cord which poses a strangulation menace. Another is a 101 Dalmatians firetruck whose ladder hook has sharp edges. A third is a Bambi TV Chair by Mattel which, IIR says, tips over easily.

The group’s main ire, however, is directed toward the CPSC which applies its zeal not to protect children, but to protect suspect companies’ trade reputation. Rather than suing after finding a safety defect, the CPSC engages in negotiations that are surrounded by secrecy for the manufacturers and toys involved. No matter that consumers in the hundreds were complaining to the Commission about the toy’s dangers or that the manufacturer may have admitted the danger. Those sets of facts may never become public information either.

IIR has a checklist for what to look for when purchasing toys. There is advice on age labels, small parts and potential strangulation hazards. There are also warnings on toy chests, points, sharp edges and projectiles, infant pillows and cushions and baby walkers. (call 800-544-3694)

Write to the Consumer Product Safety Commission in Washington, DC and ask them to send you their free toy hazard checklist for parents. You also might wish to ask them how they expect to toughen their consumer protection under Clinton as compared to Reagan-Bush.