Despite industry improvements, dangerous toys still abound on store shelves this holiday season, warns an annual report released Tuesday by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group.

The group is alerting parents of young children to be on the lookout for toys whose small parts could pose a choking hazard. Federal regulation bans small parts in toys intended for kids under 3 and requires labels for those targeted to children 3 to 6. But dozens of toys remain on the market that are not properly labeled, the group says.

Approximately half of all choking deaths in children are blamed on balloons, which can easily travel down the throat to cut off breathing. At least 68 children have died by aspirating balloons since 1990, U.S. PIRG says.

But the group says its researchers still found balloons marketed to very young children with characters including Thomas the Tank Engine and Winnie the Pooh.

U.S. PIRG research director Alison Cassady told reporters that toy makers have improved their safety practices in the 20 years that her group has been policing safety.

“Most toys on store shelves are safe and fun for kids,” she says.

Keep the Holidays Happy and Healthy

Toxic Tests

That still doesn’t apply to some toys, according to the group. Many plastic toys now come labeled "phthalates free" because of increasing concern that the chemicals, used to soften plastic in toys and pacifiers, could pose a health risk.

The report showed that six of eight toys labeled as "phthalates free" still contained at least one form of the chemicals. One labeled product, “Baby’s First Peek-a-Boo Book,” made by Sassy, tested positive for four different phthalates.

“Instead of helping parents, these labels are deceiving parents,” Cassady says.

Gary Klein, a spokesman for the Toy Industry Association, denied that phthalates have been shown to be dangerous in the levels present in children’s toys.

“It’s very easy to scare parents by mentioning children and toxic chemicals in the same breath,” he says.

Klein called the alleged mislabeling of phthalates-containing toys “a problem.”

“We don’t endorse the mislabeling of a product,” he tells WebMD.

Safety advocates on Tuesday repeated a years-old warning about yo-yo water balls. Kids swing the heavy ball on the end of a rubber string and in dozens of incidents have wound up wrapping the string around their own necks.

The toys remain legal in the U.S. despite bans in the U.K. and Canada. In June, Illinois became the first state to ban yo-yo water balls from store shelves.

The report also included information regarding other hazards such as loud toys that pose the risk for hearing loss and injuries from motorized and nonmotorized riding toys.

By Todd Zwillich, reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

SOURCES: U.S. Public Interest Research Group, “Trouble in Toyland, 20th Annual Toy Safety Survey." Alison Cassady, research director, U.S. PIRG. Gary Klein, spokesman, Toy Industry Association.