This Organic Mom Fails: Buying Truly Safe Toys Is Impossible

Parents of older children may not be surprised to read this confession: as my daughter gets older, shopping for safe toys - holiday presents and otherwise - is getting harder. Even for an "expert" like me. I find this endlessly infuriating. And confusing.

This holiday season, I have been trying to follow my own advice as I do (pretty minimal) holiday shopping. I've asked the grandparents to buy her tickets to shows and classes. So in January, she'll start a dance class at a cute spot across the street. Great. She'll also go see some of her favorite kids' music with us (haven't listened to Elizabeth Mitchell yet? Do!).

In years past, I mainly curated whatever toys she was getting, based on what was developmentally appropriate and what she was most fond of playing with at friends' houses. I have tried to find safe, hard wood, preferably local(ish)ly made versions of things like train sets, doll houses, musical instruments, blocks, play fruits and veggies for her play kitchen, and more. Any of these items that are painted only come from certain companies, crosschecked on

This year, my almost four-year-old is much more verbal about what she would like. She really, really wants a pram for her babies. It's not enough that she has some (probably toxic) toy stroller that lives at her grandparents' apartment nearby. The babies need to lie down -- don't I understand, Mom? -- to take their naps. The wooden versions I normally turn to at times like these are well over $100, some closer to $200, while the plastic ones are $30ish. The plastic ones are also more fun - they have bassinets, which detach from their pram frames. That sounds like endless hours of fun and role-playing. What's a mom to do? I researched and researched the various baby prams online but none of them have been tested by So I tried to extrapolate. Similar plastic strollers have been tested and the resulting issues are chlorine (possibly from PVC parts, but these were tested by HealthyStuff a few years before the most recent Consumer Products Safety Commission rulings on vinyl). There was also some bromine, likely flame retardants in the padding. That's not great. And I think there was padding in some of the plastic pram pictures I was looking at. Ultimately I wound up getting her a moderately priced metal frame pram over a plastic one. It has a bassinet. If it has foam when it arrives, I will remove it. She's going to love it. But I am deeply uncomfortable with it. I'm not sure it's safe.

Winters are long and cold here in New York City, and I don't have a door to just open and release the kid into a safe, snowy yard. So I'm always looking for fun things to do to pass the winter hours. A few weeks back we played -- blissfully and for hours -- in a friends' indoor pop up tent. It's a perfect urban toy -- it doesn't require rods for assembly and folds up small and stores tidily in a closet. It seemed like a great thing to get her. Apparently it also goes outside - double duty! -- so its fabric contains UV protection and the floor of the tent is waterproof. As it hasn't been tested by, I called the manufacturer to ask which chemicals are used for UV protection and waterproofing, and to find out if the tent is also treated with a flame retardant. Needless to say, I didn't get a call back. One of her eager grandparents purchased it for her before I could call back again. She's going to love it. But I am also deeply uncomfortable with this. I'm not sure it's safe either.

These are just two examples. I'll spare you the details of my safe harmonica shopping drama (impossible!). She doesn't need a pram or an indoor tent, of course, so in that sense I can avoid the potential harmful substances in these items, just as I have been avoiding them for the past four years. But it's harder to avoid when your child is aware, interested, involved. How can you tell a kid they can't learn a musical instrument because it might be unsafe for them? It's like the theatre of the absurd!

I can't shop my way out of these problems and I don't happen to own my own XRF gun to test toys as I shop. The only thing I can do is continuously plead with my elected officials to help reform chemical legislation. If you think kids should be able to do normal kid things like play with their babies and play the harmonica without being exposed to toxic chemicals, join me.

And meanwhile, did anyone else read that ridiculous Wall Street Journal article saying "chemical crusaders" like me are ruining the holidays?

Talk about theatre of the absurd. Worth a read and a sounding off in comments, if you're so inclined.

posted by Alexandra

Reprinted with Permission of Hearst Communications, Inc.