Business·CBC Investigates

Choking hazards, chemical contamination top reasons for toy recalls

A CBC News analysis of every toy recall in Canada over the past decade has identified the most-common safety hazards as small parts that break off or are easily swallowed and contaminants such as lead, phthalates or bacteria. The good news, however, is that inspections have improved in recent years, and problem toys are now recalled faster.

But toy safety in Canada has improved over the past decade, a CBC News analysis found

Magtastik magnetic toys sold by Mega Brands were among the most recalled toys in Canada in the past decade, a CBC News analysis found. (Health Canada)

During this final mad rush of holiday gift-buying — and at the risk of sounding a bit bah-humbug — a CBC News analysis of every toy recall in Canada over the past decade has broken down the most common safety hazards.

The analysis of 423 recalls between 2007 and 2017 involving more than 11 million toys sold in Canada found choking hazards and chemical contaminants are the biggest dangers.

But, in keeping with the season, there is some cheerful news: tougher consumer legislation and beefed up toy inspections by Health Canada appear to have stamped out a number of problems that lurked on store shelves, including toys contaminated with lead paint.

The adoption of the Consumer Product Safety Act in 2011 expanded the powers of government inspectors so they could issue recalls faster, which experts say appears to be improving safety.

"The regulation seems to have worked very well," said Hari Bapuji, a Canadian toy marketing specialist.

"We are not seeing as many recalls; we are not seeing recalls that take as long."

Here are the key takeaways for consumers.

Choking top risk

Small parts that break off, chip or are easily swallowed proved to be the most common hazard, prompting 230 out of the 423 recalls issued since 2007.   

The recalled products included magnetic blocks, plush animals, rattles, whistles, action figures and puzzles. 

Among the most widely recalled toys were Magtastik magnetic toys sold by Mega Brands in 2008 and a Hello Kitty Birthday Lollipop Whistle that was part of a McDonald's Happy Meal promotion in 2014.

This Hello Kitty whistle was part of a McDonald's Happy Meal promotion in 2014 but had to be recalled because components inside the whistle could detach, posing a choking hazard. (U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission)

Christine Simpson, who worked as a Health Canada toy compliance inspector for more than 30 years, says tiny magnets in electronic products can also pose a particular risk for children.

"If they swallow multiple magnets, they're going to cause dire health issues," she said. "So, parents also have to be mindful that if they have powerful magnets that really stick together that you have to keep them out of the hands of children, even older children."

Slime, toxic contaminants

Chemicals used in the making of toys were to blame for 27 per cent of all recalls since 2007.

In 2017 alone, five separate recalls were issued for these popular "slime" products: Floof, Paulinda Super Dough, 6ixSlime, craftedbyalyssaj and Spirit Halloween.

If licked or swallowed, the high levels of boric acid in the products could have long-term effects on a child's development and future reproductive health, Health Canada warned.

Eight different brands of infant teething rings were pulled from shelves because their liquid fillers became contaminated with bacteria, including staphylococcus. (Health Canada)

Other contaminants common in toy recalls have been lead paint and phthalates — chemicals used to make polyvinyl chloride, a type of plastic, flexible and to hold colour and scents in certain products. 

Phthalates were flagged in seven products, including in squeeze toys and dolls. If these toys were chewed or sucked for extended periods, they could cause reproductive and developmental abnormalities in young children, the recall notices said.

Eight different brands of infant teething rings were also pulled from shelves because their liquid fillers had a tendency to become contaminated with bacteria, including staphylococcus.

China primary source

China is the source of three-quarters of all defective toys subject to Canadian recalls, the CBC News analysis found.

But researcher Bapuji points out that might have more to do with the fact that 85 per cent of all toys sold in Canada and the U.S. are manufactured there.

"It is not because of poor manufacturing in China that we see a lot of this," he said. "It is simply because pretty much all the production is made in China, when it comes to toys."

Bapuji has conducted his own studies of defective toys around the globe,and teaches international business at the University of Melbourne in Australia.


Lead scare drops off

In 2007, fears over potential lead poisoning sparked worldwide toy recalls. That's when Mattel issued warnings about 18 million of its Chinese-made Polly Pocket dolls and Batman action figures, in part because of problems with excessive amounts of lead in the paint.

Canada issued 28 lead-related recalls in 2007. So far this year, there have been no such recalls.

Health Canada says that's because the majority of toy makers don't use lead products anymore. 

"The findings demonstrate that compliance and enforcement activities and education efforts have had an impact on industry and that they are changing how products are being sourced," the agency said in an email statement.

Canada steps up monitoring

Since 2007, Health Canada has hired more inspectors and poured more resources into toy monitoring.

Prior to the adoption of the Consumer Safety Act in 2011, it could take years for defective toys to be removed from shelves, with authorities only stepping in after receiving numerous complaints from consumers or reports of injuries or illness.

The analysis done by CBC News suggests that in recent years, there were fewer mass recalls, and the proportion of defective toys detected and recalled within a year or less has increased.


Valérie Ouellet is CBC's senior data journalist in Toronto. She recently investigated the Paradise Papers, prison deaths, RCMP misconduct and the troubled Phoenix pay system.