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Congress must do more to protect our children

If you're like me, you're probably still taking care of some last-minute holiday shopping -- especially for the kids in your life whose smiles make the season so special. But as you select that special toy, consider this: Last year alone, more than 180,000 American children visited the emergency room with toy-related injuries.

Unfortunately, injury from unsafe toys has been a problem in the United States for decades. Just last year, East Aurora-based industry giant Fisher-Price had to recall 11 million products marketed to children because of serious choking risks and laceration hazards. According a report in this newspaper, Fisher-Price recalled 7 million tricycles and a million high chairs after kids suffered cuts from unsafe parts. And incidents like these are just part of a larger trend: More than 200,000 youngsters are hurt by dangerous toys every year.

A number of factors contribute to this troubling phenomenon. First and foremost, the government agency charged with overseeing safety issues like these, the Consumer Product Safety Commission, has seen its budget and payroll slashed in recent years, and that shortfall is manifest on the retail shelves that CPSC is supposed to be overseeing. A study by Consumer Reports found that nearly a third of toys purchased violate industry safety standards. And when a dangerous defect is found, few consumers know about it.

There is, it should be said, some reason to be encouraged. In 2008 Congress passed the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act, which set in motion some vital improvements. Manufacturers of toys designed for children age 12 and younger must now certify that their products have been tested and approved by outside experts. And toy-safety standards that formerly were voluntary have now been made mandatory.

But there remains significant cause for concern. As CPSC itself noted in a recent report, while recalls decreased, toy-related fatalities actually increased last year, from 15 to 17. Our hearts break for those 34 parents and the countless family members, classmates and friends whose holiday season will be heavy with grief. And we share their anger, because we know that more can be done -- and must be done.

Congress can take action by passing legislation that would protect children by making it illegal to sell dangerous toys, keeping dangerous toys out of child care facilities and creating a national registry of recalled products, so that parents can easily check to see whether both new and hand-me-down toys have been declared unsafe. When combined with a strong civil justice system to hold toy-makers accountable, such legislation will help keep our children safe, without costing the jobs that our communities need.

In the coming days, millions of American kids will unwrap a new favorite toy. Let's make sure that when the holiday time rolls around next year, all of them are safe and thriving. It's the best gift we can give.

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Leslie Kelmachter is president of the New York State Trial Lawyers Association.

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