WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Toy buyers beware -- toxic chemicals are still found in kids' products despite new laws against them, said a U.S. consumer watchdog on Tuesday.
With the holiday shopping season getting under way, the U.S. Public Interest Research Group (PIRG) warned consumers to avoid soft plastic toys and heavy children's jewelry.
"It's still 'buyer beware' for this shopping season," said PIRG health advocate Liz Hitchcock at a news conference.
Soft plastic toys may contain phthalates, chemicals linked by some medical research to a range of health problems.
"Our advice to consumers is to avoid soft plastic products," Hitchcock said as she released PIRG's 23rd toy safety survey -- an annual event for the world toy industry.
Ed Mierzwinski, another PIRG official, said consumers should also steer clear of products likely to contain lead.
"I just wouldn't buy heavy metal jewelry for kids," he said, adding that plastic jewelry could pose choking hazards.
Eighteen U.S. children died from toy-related injuries last year, while 80,000 children under the age of five ended up in hospital emergency rooms due to such mishaps, the group said.
Stricter U.S. product safety rules were signed into law on August 14 by President George W. Bush. The crackdown came after months of recalls of dangerous, Chinese-made toys that made 2007 known as "the year of the recall," safety advocates said.
Mattel Inc, RC2 Corp and other companies were forced to pull millions of Chinese-made toys from shelves last year, primarily due to excessive lead content in paint.
Since then, sniping has continued between public advocacy groups and the Bush administration's Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) over how to interpret portions of the law.
The CPSC told toy companies last week that they could keep selling phthalate-laden toys until they run out of them, Hitchcock said, adding that this was done in spite of "a clear prohibition against selling them after February 10."
CPSC spokeswoman Julie Vallese defended the commission's action, saying the agency is enforcing the law as written.
"If they don't like what they wrote, Congress can change it and fix it," Vallese told reporters after the PIRG conference.
California Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer said on Friday that the CPSC opinion allowing the continued sale of goods containing phthalates was "harmful to our children and ... a pathetic and transparent attempt to avoid enforcing this law."
She said: "It is beyond me that as they exit the scene, this administration is still carrying out its malicious actions to weaken environmental protections for our families."
The law signed by Bush in August sharply cut the amount of lead allowed in children's products, increased the CPSC's budget and curbed allowable phthalate content.
The American Chemistry Council -- representing Dow Chemical Co, DuPont Co and many other manufacturers -- said at the time that there was no scientific basis for restricting phthalates, but that it recognized consumer concerns and would work with the CPSC and others to study public safety.
Illinois Democratic Rep. Bobby Rush said his consumer protection subcommittee will hold a hearing in December or January on product safety, possibly before the CPSC's present leadership is replaced by President-elect Barack Obama.
Reporting by Kevin Drawbaugh, editing by Gerald E. McCormick