Over three billion toys are manufactured and sold each year, most of them around Christmas time.
How are product safety checks carried out, especially when it comes to toys? And what rights do consumers have? We’re off to Finland to find out.
“We basically trust the manufacturers. I don’t personally ask for every single product’s certificate, but, if I find there is a faulty product, I immediately make a reclamation,” says Paola Radyman, who owns a toy shop in Helsinki.
Finland is one of the countries in Europe that issues most warnings about unsafe toys.
The list of recalled items, be it toys or any other kind of dangerous product, is updated weekly on the European Commission’s Rapid Alert system, the so called Rapex index.
Sixty percent of the toys produced and sold worldwide are purchased for Christmas.
This year, Finnish authorities took five toys off the market ahead of the shopping rush.
“We had, for example, this piggy that has eyes that detach easily and that also has phtalates, in way too high dosages, 40%,” says Anna Pukander, Head of Consumer Safety at the Finnish market surveillance authority.
“The detaching eyes are a suffocation hazard and the phtalates are toxic,” she adds.
Other banned toys include teddy bear clothes also full of phtalates, a wooden car with small parts that presented a choking hazard, and a toy laser which emited dangerously high levels of radiation.
“We work in tight cooperation with the Customs Laboratory and the Custom authorities. This allows us to spot dangerous toys on the market,” says Anna Pukander.
The Safety Technology Authority’s role is to remove dangerous products already on the market.
The Customs Laboratory stops them ever reaching the shelves. Each year between 600 and 800 toy samples are tested. When a non-complying product is found, it is either sent back to the manufacturing country or destroyed.
“We cannot test all imports,” says the Customs Laboratory director Janne Nieminen. “So we take a number of them, and of course we know where the risks lie. This year, we checked around 700 samples and we rejected about 10% of these. The main reason was chemical non-compliance and mechanical non-compliance.”
But there are other reasons for banning a toy.
Customers have the right to be correctly informed about what they buy. The first indication they should look for is CE marking, which states that the product meets EU safety, health and environmental standards.
Mislabelling is the third main reason why toys are taken off the shelves:
“There’s always the risk of counterfeit products or a misuse of the CE marking,” says Fabien Fédy, a lawyer at the European Consumer Centre.
“Of course this is under the responsibility of the surveillance authorities, but also of the toy shops and manufacturers. There are exceptions, but when you have the CE marking, it’s a good indication that the product is safe according to EU legislation.”
In the jungle of labels and pictograms, the 0-3 warning is one of the most important. It is mandatory on toys intended for children older than three, but which could present a danger for younger children. The indication of the hazard has to be specified.
The retailer is the first port of call for the consumer when something goes wrong.
“There are sometimes products that are not used in the right way, or there is a problem with the product and yes, I do make a complaint to the people I bought the product from,” Paola Radyman tells us. “It’s important because that’s the only way a manufacturer can be made aware of the fact that a product does not live up to standards.”
A grey zone remains in the classification of products as toys.
According to the EU Toy Safety Directive, the product doesn’t have to be exclusively intended for playing purposes to be considered a toy. Some Christmas tree decorations we found in the toy shop were missing the CE marking, as did other objects intended for adult use, such as collectors’ items.
So what are your rights if you find the toy, or any other product you bought, is not really what you had expected?
Going back to the shop or turning to the local market surveillance authority is one answer.
According to Fabien Fédy of the European Consumer Centre, it depends on the situation:
“If the product is faulty then the consumer can return the product within a period of two years,” he says.
“If the consumer doesn’t like the product he got, and if he purchased the product on the internet, then he has a cooling-off period of at least 7 days to withdraw from the contact. He doesn’t have to give any reason, just send back the product and get his money back. And if you buy a toy from a local shop, then you don’t have any right to return it. There is no cooling-off period,” he tells us.
The teddy we purchased in Finland is a gift for someone in France.
We decide to have it tested at the Laboratoire National de Métrologie et Essais near Paris to make sure it is safe.
Manufacturers are responsible for the safety of their products and can choose not to have the toy tested by a notified body.
When asked what tests they would carry out on a teddy bear bought in Finland before it could be imported into France, test officer Laurence Wachenheim says:
“We could make a seams test on this teddy bear to check that children can’t access the padding inside and choke on it.”
The teddy bear passes the seams test without any problem, but a more brutal experiment awaits: the flammability test.
If the flames progress too quickly, a child could be seriously injured if the teddy were to catch fire.
“The flame spreads far slower than 30 millimetres per second, so the toy complies with flammability standards,” says test officer Laurence Wachenheim.
Good news for little Emily who can safely give her new, approved friend the big bear hug it deserves after going through such an ordeal.