NEWS

Gauthier: A Polly in my pocket

Deborah E. Gauthier

Do you remember the magnets that used to come with "scientific" toys years ago? They were silver, shaped like a horseshoe, and each end was painted red.

Though meant to be a learning tool, they provided hours of fun, almost as much fun as a small ball of mercury from a broken thermometer that would, at a gentle touch, break into a million pieces and then regroup in the same way as the bad guy in "Terminator II."

We know now that mercury is a dangerous metal, toxic to humans and the environment. Our children do not play with mercury.

Our children do play with magnets.

It took a while, but toymakers caught on to the fact that magnets are more than educational and useful, they are fun. So we've got such things as Magnetix - oddly-shaped building "blocks" that connect together through magnets.

And we've got Polly Pockets, a toy I particularly enjoy.

Polly Pockets are dolls no taller than my ring finger. They've got a better wardrobe than Barbie, a collection of shoes to rival that of Imelda Marcos, and more vacation homes than the late Aristotle Onassis.

The shoes are smaller than the nail on my youngest granddaughter's pinky finger, hence Polly Pockets have been considered a choking hazard in my daughter's home since Day One and limited to the bedroom of the two older girls.

Some of her clothing and accessory pieces, her wigs for instance, attach to the doll by magnet, an easy solution for small hands and an undeveloped nervous system not deft enough to handle little pieces easily.

Unfortunately, Magnetix and Polly Pockets, along with many others toys, have been recalled by their makers because it's been shown they can be dangerous. According to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, more than 8 million magnetic toys have been recalled since 2005.

Here's the problem.

The magnets are very small and very powerful. They are coated with a fairly thin plastic that can split open, releasing the magnets, described to be around the size of a baby aspirin.

Small magnets are, according to the CPSC, more than a choking hazard, they are a "stealthy hazard" because the child doesn't usually choke on the small pieces. Once ingested, however, particularly if more than one is swallowed, they cause serious damage to the stomach and intestine.

One child died, and about 86 others injured, after ingesting small magnets.

Should we be concerned? Of course.

Given that information, will I encourage my daughter to pack up Polly Pockets and all the paraphernalia into a large trash bag and send it off to that ever-expanding landfill of poisoned toys?

Polly would have lots of company - Thomas the Tank Engine and Sarge from the movie "Cars" among them because China, where the toys are manufactured, used lead paint in the processing, and lead can also be deadly to our children.

I won't, which is a surprising stand for me as I see danger in every corner, particularly when it comes to my grandchildren. I'm sure my daughter will continue to keep the toy restricted to the bedroom, and supervise the 3-year-old when she wants to play along.

That doesn't mean, however, that I'm not concerned with the cavalier way toymakers, such as Polly Pockets producer Mattel, are making the products they market to our children.

More than 80 percent of the toys sold in the world today - yes, the world are made in China. Why? According to Keith Lister, toy safety adviser at the British Toy and Hobby Association, it's the only way for toy companies to stay "competitive."

As usual, it all comes down to money.

Robert A. Eckert, chairman and chief executive officer of Mattel, said they will spend all necessary resources to make sure the toys being produced are safe.

"We do not put a price on safety... It's not about economics, testing is just a cost of doing business," he is quoted as saying in Britain's "The Guardian" this week.

That might be so. It won't hurt, however, to check the CPSC Web site before purchasing any product.

Now, if you'll excuse me, my granddaughters and I have a date with Polly.

Deb Gauthier of The MetroWest Daily News (Framingham, Mass.) can be reached by e-mail at dgauthie@cnc.com.