Stranded on the Island of Dangerous Toys

Run down ... by the Big Fun Chuffa Puffa Train of Death!


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David Futrelle
November 30, 1996 1:00AM (UTC)

the Season is upon us. No, I don't mean the two-month orgy of gift buying, gift giving and gift returning, starting around Halloween and ending around New Years, that we euphemistically call "the Holidays." I mean the two-month orgy of scaredy-cat warnings about everything from improperly cooked stuffing to unsafe kiddie toys.

It begins just before Halloween, with local news anchors and concerned advice columnists warning about the dangers of trick-or-treating in particular, the hidden danger of the (seemingly) kindly old lady up the street who sneaks razor blades into apples for the kids.

Advertisement:

In fact, the problem of the tricky treat is an imaginary one, a melange of rumors and overly-credulous news reporting. Joel Best, a sociologist at Cal State in Fresno, systematically examined newspaper accounts of such poisonings from 1958 until 1988. He discovered only two poisoning deaths even vaguely attributable to Halloween candy: in one case, a Texas youngster's Pixie Stix were laced with cyanide by his own father, apparently hoping to cash in on his life insurance policy. The other Halloween "poisoning" involved a kid who inadvertently swallowed some heroin from his uncle's stash; other family members sprinkled heroin on his candy afterwards to deflect the blame away from them. So kids are in far more danger from their families than from strangers how reassuring.

Well, don't relax just yet. Just as soon as we've recovered from the Halloween scare, we encounter an even more fearsome danger: The Stuffing of Doom. This year we actually got two warnings on the subject. The first, released by the USDA in August, was possibly the direst turkey stuffing warning ever. It "strongly advise[d]" that Americans refrain from actually stuffing their birds, since such a casual approach to stuffing safety was sure to bring down a plague of diarrhea and worse upon the land. "Improperly cooked stuffing can cause serious illness or even death," Agriculture Department spokeswoman Bessie Berry maintained.

This warning was too much for even the most bacteriologically-minded Americans, and earlier this week the USDA released a second stuffing advisory to the press backing off somewhat from its earlier claims. Though the USDA still argues that "cooking a home-stuffed turkey can be somewhat riskier than cooking one not stuffed," the agency no longer "strongly advises" against it, and tactfully refrains from mentioning the possibility that this Thanksgiving dinner could be your last.

Now that the stuffing crisis is safely past (and the leftover crisis has begun), we can turn our full attention to the other scourge of the holiday season: the ominous danger of dangerous toys. Earlier this week, the U.S. Public Interest Research Group (PIRG) released its annual "Trouble in Toyland" report to the press (this link is to an older study: the current one isn't online yet) detailing the dangers posed to small children by sharp edges, long strings, and (worst of all) small balls. Indeed, some 21 children suffered toy-related deaths last year, the vast majority of them under the age of five.

Among the toys the group took to task this year: the Puppy Play House ("The puppies are a choking hazard"); Soft 'N Snug Doll Care Accessories ("Nipples come off bottles and are a choking hazard"); the Soft Cow Pull Toy ("cord ... poses strangulation hazard"); and, perhaps most alarmingly of all, the Big Fun Chuffa Puffa train (also a strangulation hazard).

It certainly doesn't help that the most dangerous of toys have names straight out of Dr. Seuss. I can't help imagining the poor things quarantined in an isolated warehouse off in the middle of North Dakota much like the legendary Island of Misfit Toys. Picture the scene: The Soft 'N Snug 'N Deadly Doll Care Accessories lie weeping in the corner, distraught at the realization that Santa has left them behind once again. Meanwhile, the Big Fun Chuffa Puffa Train of Death, his cries muffled by the desperate lowing of the disconsolate Soft Cows, chokes to death on a tiny plastic puppy he's idly popped in his mouth. Little Snoopy runs for help, but trips over his 27-inch pull cord and falls into a barrel of Small Balls, where he quickly succumbs to the urge to eat one and .. well, you know the rest.

Advertisement:

And I can't help but think that the effectiveness of U.S. PIRG's warnings has been compromised a little by its melodramatic style. According to an Associated Press report I read on the matter (festooned with the charmingly double-headed headline "Dangerous Toy Study Released"), the author of the study took advantage of the press conference to wrap "the 27-inch pull cord attached to Fisher Price's Little Snoopy toy around her neck, illustrating, she said, how a child could easily choke himself." Of course, this is a woman who's spent the whole last year imagining all the different ways children could be maimed or killed by apparently innocuous toys. ("Hmmm. If I tie this four-year-old to the back of my car with a 27-inch pull cord, then speed off down the highway....")

I'm sure the toys the group have targeted are legitimately dangerous. I just wonder why the group chooses the Christmas shopping season to release its findings. Oh, sure, you say, big shopping season, Santa, all that crap. But the real Killer Plaything, the Hannibal Lecter of the Toy World, isn't Little Snoopy or the Big Fun Chuffa Puffa Train, but the Nefarious Balloon the one toy you almost never see at Christmas time. More children choke to death on balloons each year than die from all other toys put together. Or from stuffing, I might add.

The fact is these concerns over candy, stuffing and toys aren't purely rational ones. They reflect displaced anxiety over a whole host of messy human problems many of which are exacerbated during the dreaded Holidays.

On Halloween, I suspect, many parents worry about evil strangers as a way to deflect the guilt they feel about the limited time they spend raising their own kids: it's easier to inspect a bag of candy than it is to raise a safe and happy child in a difficult world.

Advertisement:

On Thanksgiving, harried mothers (and, sometimes, fathers) try to conjure up a vision of happy domesticity in front of all the relatives all while cooking up a massive beast of a dinner, the kind that might wear even Martha Stewart down. So the simple rules of the Turkey Advisories are comforting, in a way, especially if the only kind of cooking you normally do involves little more than microwaves and Lean Cuisines. (You may not win any culinary awards, but if you follow the rules, at least no one will get up from the table dead.)

Similarly, at Christmas time, parents can take comfort in PIRG's list of dangerous toys for dangerous toys are far easier to deal with than a dangerous world.

But "safety first" is a pretty limited way to look at life. These are holidays, after all celebrate! Eat some uninspected candy. Stuff a turkey. Live a little, before you die.

Advertisement:

By DAVID FUTRELLE
the Season is upon us. No, I don't mean the two-month orgy of gift buying, gift giving and gift returning, starting around Halloween and ending around New Years, that we euphemistically call "the Holidays." I mean the two-month orgy of scaredy-cat warnings about everything from improperly cooked stuffing to unsafe kiddie toys.

It begins just before Halloween, with local news anchors and concerned advice columnists warning about the dangers of trick-or-treating — in particular, the hidden danger of the (seemingly) kindly old lady up the street who sneaks razor blades into apples for the kids.

In fact, the problem of the tricky treat is an imaginary one, a melange of rumors and overly-credulous news reporting. Joel Best, a sociologist at Cal State in Fresno, systematically examined newspaper accounts of such poisonings from 1958 until 1988. He discovered only two poisoning deaths even vaguely attributable to Halloween candy: in one case, a Texas youngster's Pixie Stix were laced with cyanide — by his own father, apparently hoping to cash in on his life insurance policy. The other Halloween "poisoning" involved a kid who inadvertently swallowed some heroin from his uncle's stash; other family members sprinkled heroin on his candy afterwards to deflect the blame away from them. So kids are in far more danger from their families than from strangers — how reassuring.

Advertisement:

Well, don't relax just yet. Just as soon as we've recovered from the Halloween scare, we encounter an even more fearsome danger: The Stuffing of Doom. This year we actually got two warnings on the subject. The first, released by the USDA in August, was possibly the direst turkey stuffing warning ever. It "strongly advise[d]" that Americans refrain from actually stuffing their birds, since such a casual approach to stuffing safety was sure to bring down a plague of diarrhea and worse upon the land. "Improperly cooked stuffing can cause serious illness or even death," Agriculture Department spokeswoman Bessie Berry maintained.

This warning was too much for even the most bacteriologically-minded Americans, and earlier this week the USDA released a second stuffing advisory to the press — backing off somewhat from its earlier claims. Though the USDA still argues that "cooking a home-stuffed turkey can be somewhat riskier than cooking one not stuffed," the agency no longer "strongly advises" against it, and tactfully refrains from mentioning the possibility that this Thanksgiving dinner could be your last.

Now that the stuffing crisis is safely past (and the leftover crisis has begun), we can turn our full attention to the other scourge of the holiday season: the ominous danger of dangerous toys. Earlier this week, the U.S. Public Interest Research Group (PIRG) released its annual "Trouble in Toyland" report to the press (this link is to an older study: the current one isn't online yet) detailing the dangers posed to small children by sharp edges, long strings, and (worst of all) small balls. Indeed, some 21 children suffered toy-related deaths last year, the vast majority of them under the age of five.

Among the toys the group took to task this year: the Puppy Play House ("The puppies are a choking hazard"); Soft 'N Snug Doll Care Accessories ("Nipples come off bottles and are a choking hazard"); the Soft Cow Pull Toy ("cord ... poses strangulation hazard"); and, perhaps most alarmingly of all, the Big Fun Chuffa Puffa train (also a strangulation hazard).

Advertisement:

It certainly doesn't help that the most dangerous of toys have names straight out of Dr. Seuss. I can't help imagining the poor things quarantined in an isolated warehouse off in the middle of North Dakota — much like the legendary Island of Misfit Toys. Picture the scene: The Soft 'N Snug 'N Deadly Doll Care Accessories lie weeping in the corner, distraught at the realization that Santa has left them behind once again. Meanwhile, the Big Fun Chuffa Puffa Train of Death, his cries muffled by the desperate lowing of the disconsolate Soft Cows, chokes to death on a tiny plastic puppy he's idly popped in his mouth. Little Snoopy runs for help, but trips over his 27-inch pull cord and falls into a barrel of Small Balls, where he quickly succumbs to the urge to eat one and .. well, you know the rest.

And I can't help but think that the effectiveness of U.S. PIRG's warnings has been compromised a little by its melodramatic style. According to an Associated Press report I read on the matter (festooned with the charmingly double-headed headline "Dangerous Toy Study Released"), the author of the study took advantage of the press conference to wrap "the 27-inch pull cord attached to Fisher Price's Little Snoopy toy around her neck, illustrating, she said, how a child could easily choke himself." Of course, this is a woman who's spent the whole last year imagining all the different ways children could be maimed or killed by apparently innocuous toys. ("Hmmm. If I tie this four-year-old to the back of my car with a 27-inch pull cord, then speed off down the highway....")

I'm sure the toys the group have targeted are legitimately dangerous. I just wonder why the group chooses the Christmas shopping season to release its findings. Oh, sure, you say, big shopping season, Santa, all that crap. But the real Killer Plaything, the Hannibal Lecter of the Toy World, isn't Little Snoopy or the Big Fun Chuffa Puffa Train, but the Nefarious Balloon — the one toy you almost never see at Christmas time. More children choke to death on balloons each year than die from all other toys put together. Or from stuffing, I might add.

The fact is these concerns over candy, stuffing and toys aren't purely rational ones. They reflect displaced anxiety over a whole host of messy human problems — many of which are exacerbated during the dreaded Holidays.

Advertisement:

On Halloween, I suspect, many parents worry about evil strangers as a way to deflect the guilt they feel about the limited time they spend raising their own kids: it's easier to inspect a bag of candy than it is to raise a safe and happy child in a difficult world.

On Thanksgiving, harried mothers (and, sometimes, fathers) try to conjure up a vision of happy domesticity in front of all the relatives — all while cooking up a massive beast of a dinner, the kind that might wear even Martha Stewart down. So the simple rules of the Turkey Advisories are comforting, in a way, especially if the only kind of cooking you normally do involves little more than microwaves and Lean Cuisines. (You may not win any culinary awards, but if you follow the rules, at least no one will get up from the table dead.)

Similarly, at Christmas time, parents can take comfort in PIRG's list of dangerous toys — for dangerous toys are far easier to deal with than a dangerous world.

But "safety first" is a pretty limited way to look at life. These are holidays, after all — celebrate! Eat some uninspected candy. Stuff a turkey. Live a little, before you die.

Advertisement:

David Futrelle

David Futrelle, a regular Sneak Peeks contributor, has written for The Nation, Newsday, and Lingua Franca.

MORE FROM David Futrelle

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