Death awaits in the toy aisle

If you're shopping for Christmas presents for kids, consider yourself warned: Strawberry Shortcake can and will kill them. Don't be fooled by this freckled femme fatale's angelic smile: She's out to choke kids without so much as a government-mandated hazard warning.

The Strawberry Shortcake Fuzzy Poster Art set by Rose Art Industries contains marker caps capable of choking a small child. It's among the targets of "Trouble in Toyland," the U.S. Public Interest Research Group's 20th annual survey of toy safety. The report lists dozens of toys capable of choking or strangling a child, as well as toxic and excessively loud toys.

As any parent will attest, an "excessively loud toy" is any toy that makes any noise whatsoever. Just ask the parents of a certain obscure humor columnist who, during a Christmastime drive from Wisconsin to Florida in the family car, managed to "lose" the noise-making ray gun their son had just received from an uncle. Wouldn't you know it, by the time we hit Chattanooga, the gun had "fallen" beneath the left rear tire of our 1970 Pontiac LeMans during a gas station stop, where it was "accidentally" crushed. My repeated calls for a congressional inquiry have been ignored.

What's impossible to ignore are toys that produce noise greater than 90 decibels. These include Geoffrey Inc.'s gun-wielding-thug-in-training kit, the Elite Operations Quantum Blast Set. With a word like "blast" right on the box, will buyers really expect dulcet tones? Also listed is the KidConnection Electronic Guitar, which can emit up to 117 decibels if the listener's ear is 1 centimeter from the speaker and the child happens to be playing "Back in Black."

Loud toys pose dangers, but don't forget that silence is deadly. Take, for example, Hasbro's Gloworm, which made the list of toxic toys. The doll's cherubic face contains three types of plastic-softening chemicals linked to health problems. So if you'd like to give your favorite tike the gift of reproductive defects this Christmas, by all means buy a Gloworm.

Some toys made the list for posing health risks, but their chief failing is that they're bad ideas. I'm not talking "having a couple of cocktails before your annual performance review" bad. I'm talking "Cop Rock" bad. Take, for example, Fisher Price's Loving Family Laundry Room. Yeah, its toy bears on strings are choking hazards, but what kind of disturbed kid would want to play laundry?

Then there's the Thomas & Friends Sawmill Playset, featuring logs that could, if choked upon, leave a kid as blue in the face as Thomas the Train's cab. Nothing says "child safety" like learning to play with miniature industrial saws, right, kids?

And don't forget the Flashing Jellyfish, a potentially dangerous toy that elicits two questions: First, why - or perhaps who - are these jellyfish flashing? Second, wouldn't a real, stinging jellyfish be safer to play with than toy ones whose batteries easily tear through their squishy material, sending them on the fast track to kids' esophaguses? By the way, the Flashing Jellyfish's stretchy cord could wrap around a child's neck if swung overhead like a lasso. (Note to kids who own the Flashing Jellyfish: Don't swing it overhead like a lasso.)

These products make you wonder what - if any - ideas the toy companies actually reject. Mattel's Box o' Rabid Vermin? Hasbro's Michael Jackson Neverland Ranch Play Set? ("Jesus juice" and "adult alarm" sold separately.)

The Public Interest Research Group has identified an immutable holiday season truth: Toys are like "Dick Clark's New Year's Rockin' Eve" - although designed to be enjoyable, they pose the threat of a long, slow and painful death.

- Columnist Ben Bromley is a former editor at Lillie Suburban Newspapers. He now writes for the Baraboo News Republic.

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