Hidden dangers lurk in some of those less expensive toys that parents might grab as stocking stuffers this time of year - like a Sesame Street Oscar the Grouch doll.
The small, furry green Oscar, purchased for $6.99, was one of the toys singled out in the annual toy safety report from the U.S. Public Interest Research Group.
The consumer advocate's report, released Tuesday, found just over a dozen toys on store shelves that violate federal safety standards. Some had unsafe levels of lead or chemicals called phthalates, and others contained small parts that young children could choke on. Besides Oscar, other toys deemed potentially dangerous included a plastic book for babies; a $1 plastic mini-crossbow that fires off little balls and a hand-held "whirly wheel."
The Oscar doll has a small hat that could come off easily, which is a possible choking hazard, PIRG said. The crossbow's small parts also put young children at risk of choking, according to the report.
The book and the whirly wheel had high levels of lead, according to the study. But an importer of the whirly wheel disputes that, and says the company's own testing shows the spinning magnetic toy with lead levels well below the limit.
PIRG also warned about toys that are too loud and could lead to damaged hearing, such as an Elmo talking cell phone that the group says tested just above voluntary industry noise limits.
Ed Mierzwinski, the group's consumer program director, said industrial chemicals and toxins in toys were the biggest problems the group found this year. Exposure to lead can cause irreversible brain damage, and some studies have linked phthalates to reproductive problems.
Toy makers played down the report and pointed to government figures showing sharp declines in the number of national toy recalls.
"All eyes have been on toy safety for several years now," says Joan Lawrence, the Toy Industry Association's vice president for safety standards. "I am confident that the toys on store shelves are safe. The toy industry works year-round on this."
Government figures show 34 toy recalls in fiscal year 2011 - down from 46 recalls the previous year; 50 in 2009 and 172 in 2008. Recalls related to lead were down from 19 in 2008 to four this past year.
PIRG credited a 2008 law that set stronger standards for children's products, including strict limits on lead, for helping to make many of the products on store shelves safer for youngsters.
he law was passed after a wave of recalls of lead-tainted toys.
Bob Adler, a commissioner at the Consumer Product Safety Commission, said that some problems remain but that new rules requiring manufacturers to have their toys tested at independent third-party labs have led to important improvements in safety.
PIRG reviewed about 200 toys and other children's products from major retailers and dollar stores.