Baby playing with toyMy 1-year-old, like any young child, explores the world by tasting—everything she grabs goes directly into her mouth. But the slew of recent toy recalls has me worried: Is that teething ring she's gnawing on safe?

The good news is that in August 2008, a ban on phthalates in children's toys finally became U.S. law, but it doesn't take full effect until February 2009. It's still impossible to tell just by looking at a toy whether it contains toxins. And who has the time to navigate lengthy government reports, scientific studies, and recall notices? Thankfully, just a few questions can help you shop smart.

1. Where was it manufactured?

More than 70 percent of all toys sold in the United States are made in other countries, particularly China, according to the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC). In 2007, millions of Chinese toys were recalled because they contained lead paint. “Since 1978, no paint manufactured in the United States has contained lead. Unfortunately, many toys are manufactured outside the United States, where our government has little or no control,” says Bryan Burke, MD, a neonatologist at Arkansas Children's Hospital in Little Rock. Burke, a grandfather of two young boys, says lead is particularly troublesome because it's hard to identify symptoms of lead poisoning. “Those children who have no symptoms can sometimes be affected later in life with subtle decreases in IQ levels or with other neurological problems, like attention deficit hyperactivity disorder,” he says.

After the recalls, the Chinese government tightened its standards and instituted more screening of exported toys. But Burke notes that it's still up to parents to monitor what enters the home. “If a painted toy seems excessively shiny, especially if it was made in a developing country, I would advise against buying it,” he says.

Get kids moving

The American Academy of Pediatrics advises that no child under 2 be exposed to video games, computers, TVs, or anything else that uses an electronic screen. But that hasn't stopped manufacturers from marketing DVDs and toy computers to children and infants as young as 6 months of age. Experts suggest steering infants and toddlers clear of all electronic screens until age 3 and restricting exposure after that. “In my experience, these sorts of activities decrease a child's attention span and imagination,” says Bryan Burke, MD, associate professor of general pediatrics at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences. “Even worse, time spent playing a video game could be spent far better putting together puzzles, reading with their parents, or playing with other children in vigorous physical activities that would decrease their risk of obesity.” Other active choices for body and mind: bicycles, sports equipment, and scrapbooks.

2. What's it made of?

The buzz over Chinese imports overshadowed another concern: toxins that are perfectly legal. Until passage of the CPSC Reform Act in August, the United States was one of the few developed countries to permit the sale of plastic toys made with polyvinyl chloride additives called phthalates, which help make toys pliable enough to be twisted or chewed yet durable enough to survive a child's abuse. Recent studies suggest that phthalates impede testosterone production and disrupt the sexual development of infant boys.

To avoid potentially harmful plastics, buy toys made from natural materials such as eco-friendly rubberwood or other sustainable hardwoods, natural rubber, and organic fibers like cotton and wool. Read the packaging or ask the seller if you're not sure.

3. Has it been recalled?

“Even though most toys on the shelves now are considered safe, parents and caregivers need to remain vigilant and up-to-date on recalls,” says Melinda Howard, injury prevention specialist at Helen DeVos Children's Hospital in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Sign up for the CPSC's free electronic alerts (cpsc.gov); when a recall is announced, you'll get an email with details. If you own a product that seems dangerous or defective, report it to the CPSC at 800.638.2772. And if you receive secondhand toys, check the CPSC website for past recalls before giving them to your child.

Also, anytime a toy comes with a product registration card, fill it out and send it in. Often, that's the only way a toy manufacturer knows who has its products, and the company can contact you if it conducts a voluntary recall.

Up-to-date news

Wondering about a toy your child already owns? Get the latest answers at healthytoys.org, a site that compiles research conducted by U.S. environmental-health organizations. Sign up to receive an email alert for the 2008 toy screening results, set for release on December 3.

Safe brands at the natural products store

Melissa & Doug ≫ Active, educational toys made with nontoxic materials; if made in China, portions are sent to third-party labs for testing. melissaanddoug.com

  • Oompa Toys ≫ This company's website categorizes toys by country of origin, materials, age appropriateness, and more. oompa.com

  • Rich Frog ≫ Plush and wooden toys manufactured in the U.S., Germany, and Asia; rigorous third-party testing. richfrog.com

  • The Soft Landing ≫ Specializes in phthalate-, BPA-, and PVC-free teething toys and feeding products. thesoftlanding.com

For more ways to reduce your children's toxin exposure, read Detox your Home.