“You’ll shoot your eye out!”
Though BB guns, slingshots and throwing stars tend to steal the spotlight when it comes to dangerous toys, they’re just the tip of the iceberg.
In fact, recent data suggests that nearly 90,000 adults and children end up in hospitals every year due to trampoline mishaps alone.
Mid-air collisions and awkward landings can ruin an afternoon of bouncy fun, and cause everything from broken teeth and bruises to concussions and even death.
Factor in skateboards, lawn darts, and radioactive chemistry sets and it’s a wonder any of us survived childhood.
OK, enough said, let’s take a look at five seriously dangerous toys.
Between the ‘50s and ‘80s nearly 6,000 American children ended up in hospital emergency rooms, and in a few cases morgues, thanks to a number of un-family-friendly yard games known collectively as “lawn darts.”
Of the victims, more than 80% were younger than 15, while half were younger than 10.
The 12-inch (30 cm) jumbo darts came in multi-colored 4-packs and featured plastic stabilizing fins and hardened steel points to ensure maximum penetration when they landed, which unfortunately they sometimes did on family pets and unwitting kids.
For most of us these days lawn darts are little more than quirky reminders of eras long past when consumer safety issues were generally left up to consumers themselves, but even then the United States Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) partially banned lawn darts multiple times over three decades.
Originally introduced in the ‘50s, lawn darts were originally called Jarts, but their design was derived from a weapon used by Romans and Greeks thousands of years before called plumbata.
Like their contemporary recreational counterparts, plumbata were pointy, weighted metal hand-held projectiles, but unlike lawn darts they were hurled toward opposing troop formations, making them precursors to modern infantry weapons like hand grenades, with the exception that they didn’t explode.
Though they were capable of killing, plumbata more commonly caused horrific non-fatal wounds that did wonders for demoralizing enemy soldiers and slowing advances.
But their Saturnine origins aside, 20th century marketing gurus obviously didn’t see any issues with selling them to kids, or perhaps the profit motive was just more compelling than child safety.
When used as instructed, participants stood yards away from a plastic hoop and took turns tossing their darts skyward, hoping that they’d land closer to the target’s center than their competitors, thereby giving them more points.
The darts’ weight-forward design meant that the point almost always hit first and therefore stuck in the ground in the upright position.
In October 1970, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) requested that manufacturer R. B. Jarts, Inc. added additional packaging warnings explicitly noting that their product was for adults only.
But though the public clamor became more deafening as injuries and deaths mounted across the United States and Canada, nearly two decades later thousands of boxes of lawn darts sat idly on dusty garage shelves and in musty basements waiting to be discovered by bored kids whose parents were occupied elsewhere.
In early 1987, a seven-year-old Riverside, California girl named Michelle Snow was killed by a lawn dart thrown by her brother’s friend in their backyard.
Snow’s father became one of the most vocal opponents of lawn darts, advocating for an all out ban, because as he knew too well, safety warnings were woefully inadequate.
Even as the debate raged on, an 11-year-old Tennessee girl had her skull pierced by a lawn dart and fell into a coma.
Despite that, it wouldn’t be until nearly two years later when in December 19, 1988 the CPSC banned the sale of all lawn darts in the United States.
Slip N’ Slides
The timeless Slip N’ Slide was one of those rare toys that was actually safer for kids than it was for grownups.
But sadly, many adults – especially middle-aged men – just couldn’t resist its alluring siren song, despite packaging that always clearly stated that it was only intended for children younger than 10 or 11.
Adults being adults however, many either failed to recognize the warning’s importance or simply threw the box away sight unseen.
In addition, due to their increased height, weight and clumsiness, adults were far more likely to experience nasty mishaps that sometimes resulted in serious neck, spine and head injuries, and even paralysis.
In 1999 Slip N’ Slide manufacturer WHAM-O recalled 9 million units after seven adults suffered similar injuries.
30 feet long and 40 inches wide, Slip N’ Slides originally hit the market in 1961, and more than a quarter of a million units were sold in just a few months, despite being relatively expensive at $9.95, or about $90 today.
Little more than plastic sheets meant to be unwound across smooth patches of rockless grass, after the addition of water Slip N’ Slides became particularly slippery, and after a running start kids could flop on their stomachs and slide dozens of yards.
Though the surface had a lubricant infused directly into the plastic, some enterprising youngsters even added dish soap to up the ante.
But whereas most kids slid across the surface harmlessly, the legs of adults often shot out from under them without warning long before they could go horizontal willingly, and as a result some wound up in permanent vegitative states or as paraplegics or quadriplegics.
Compared to the total number of Slip N’ Slides sold, serious injuries were relatively rare, but Wham-O was sufficiently concerned with liability issues to take their cash cow off the market in the late ‘70s, and it wouldn’t resurface until 1982 when the company was purchased by Kransco.
Then in 1987 a 34-year-old Wisconsin man using his neighbor’s Slip ‘N Slide broke his neck and became a paraplegic.
He sued Kransco and rejected a $250,000 settlement offer from the company’s insurer.
After the trial in 1991 the man was awarded more than $12 million, and the jury labeled Slip N’ Slides “defective and unreasonably dangerous.”
In 1988 a student at the University of Central Florida also broke his neck while using a Slip N’ Slide and was awarded nearly $2 million, prompting the company to take the product off the market yet again, but it wasn’t until two years later that in conjunction with Kransco, the CPSC issued a recall notice to alert consumers to the slide’s dangers.
Unlike some product recalls however, the CPSC didn’t mandate that it be taken off the market entirely, their reasoning being that it was explicitly meant for children, but almost without exception it was adults getting hurt.
Subsequent investigations by journalists found a number of previous injury cases that were settled before going to trial, with the stipulation that the injured party not discuss what had happened.
In 1989, the consumer advocacy group Consumer Affairs Committee of Americans for Democratic Action reported that 5000 people had gone to the hospital for slide-related injuries in 1988 alone, and that during the ‘80s and ‘90s as many as six adults had broken their necks or backs and one 8-year-old girl had suffered brain damage.
All told, when used as directed Slip N’ Slides were relatively safe, but like the other hopelessly stigmatized toys on this list, they never could shake their bad rap.
Atomic Laboratory Kits
Parents love science related toys because they educate and entertain simultaneously.
That said, kids and radioactive elements, no matter how educational, just don’t mix.
When it was introduced in 1950 by the A.C. Gilbert Company of Erector Set fame, the Atomic Laboratory Kit contained no fewer than four distinct types of Uranium ore.
The brainchild of eccentric tinkerer, entrepreneur and wacky magician Alfred Carlton Gilbert, the kit was intended to allow kids to create and observe tiny chemical and nuclear reactions right on the living room floor.
Though his judgement may have been suspect by today’s standards, Gilbert was a popular character who believed that toys were quintessential parts of the childhood experience, and during the First World War he’d even successfully lobbied the US Council of National Defense not to ban Christmas toy purchases, which made him an icon of sorts.
Gilbert also believed that educational toys like his would push the best and brightest children toward careers in science, chemistry and engineering, at a time of burgeoning demand.
Gilbert’s Atomic Energy Lab is now the most notoriously well-known product of its kind, but it was just one of many on the market during the ‘50s.
In his autobiography Gilbert wrote that the government actually encouraged him to develop the set, and that it was abundantly safe, thanks to the world-class physicists who’d helped develop it, as well as the stamp of approval it had received from Oak-Ridge Laboratories – part of the US Atomic Energy Commission.
In fact, initial promotional material claimed that if used properly, none of the materials were dangerous.
However, this and other assertions were based on children and their parents carefully reading and following the instructions, and not breaking the seals on the more potent sample jars, which could admittedly raise the radioactive background count.
Among other fun activities, the kit urged kids to play hide and seek, using the included Geiger counter to locate radioactive samples hidden somewhere in the house.
It may sounds ludicrous now, but it wouldn’t be until more than 50 years later when a number of investigative science publications included the kit on their lists of the most dangerous toys of all time, which also featured old standbys like slingshots, BB guns and…you guessed it, lawn darts.
Other publications later verified Gilbert’s claim that if the directions were followed, the radiation exposure to users wouldn’t be any more dangerous than a few hours in direct sunlight.
But as we all know, parents don’t always supervise their children, and it’s probable that at least some of the pint-size scientists removed container seals and exposed themselves to radiation.
In the end, the verdict is still out on whether children were harmed from playing with the kit, but thankfully only about 5,000 units were sold over just two years before the product was discontinued.
At $49.50, or about $525 in today’s money, it wasn’t a flop because of real or perceived safety issues, but because it just wasn’t very affordable.
Arranging tiny colorful beads into cool patterns, dousing them with water and watching them fuse together into a solid mass sounds like good wholesome fun.
Though it may be, a dangerous problem reared its ugly head in 2007 after a number of unwitting children ingested Aqua Dots.
Eating beads is never a good thing, but in some cases it can be life threatening, like when they’ve been coated with a chemical compound similar to GHB, more commonly known as the date rape drug.
Yet that’s exactly what happened with Aqua Dots, after a number of near fatal ingestion incidents led the CPSC to issue a 4 million unit recall.
But for some parents like Arizona residents Mark and Beth Monje whose 18-month-old son Ryan swallowed a number of Aqua Dots in July of 2007, their worst nightmares became a reality.
Young Ryan began vomiting nearly immediately, and the situation became so dire that responding paramedics called for an airlift to a local medical center.
While there Ryan stopped breathing, had multiple seizures and ultimately fell into a coma.
Thankfully he lived, but both medical and court records showed that he’d suffered severe and permanent injuries including brain damage.
Shortly thereafter, two more toddlers suffered similar fates, after which Aqua Dots manufacturer Spin Master Inc., and its Canadian affiliate Spin Master LLC, pulled the products from store shelves.
Retailing for less than $30 and available at both traditional and online retailers across the United States and Canada, Aqua Dots were intended for children older than four.
The packaging did warn of ingestion hazards, but didn’t make any mention of toxic chemicals, like the one responsible for the children’s comas.
Nearly a decade after the Ryan Monje incident, his family finally got their day in court after filing a federal lawsuit against both the manufacturer and retailer where they bought the Aqua Dots, Toys “R” Us Inc.
The fact that the case ever went to trial makes it a rarity, because most similar lawsuits are either dismissed or settled out of court long before courtroom proceedings begin.
However in this case, what followed was a classic example of corporate finger pointing, as the manufacturers, distributors and retailers all sought to deflect blame and liability away from themselves.
Allegations were made that one foreign distributor and the Chinese manufacturer opted to swap the originally specified chemical coating for one that cost nearly $7,000 less per ton, even though they knew it was exponentially more dangerous.
Not surprisingly, Spin Master categorically denied allegations that it knew about let alone approved the decision.
Instead, the company argued that the blame lay squarely with the Chinese manufacturing firm who’d been contracted to produce the product, over which it claimed it had no direct control since it was a distinct business entity.
In 2015, after just a few hours of deliberation a federal jury sided with the Monjes after more than a full day of closing arguments, awarding them more than $400,000 plus another $85,000 for Ryan’s medical bills.
Mark and Beth Monje said they’d appeal for more damages, largely because they claimed Ryan’s injuries were far more severe than came to light during the trial.
When it was introduced in 1963, Kenner’s Easy-Bake Oven was a revolutionary toy that became an overnight sensation with kids across the country.
Featuring two standard 100-watt light bulbs as heat sources, nearly half a million units were sold in the first year of production alone.
By the mid-’90s, thanks largely to marketing efforts by new owner Hasbro, sales numbers had topped 15 million units, and the ovens sold briskly in overseas markets like Japan as well.
Easy-Bake ovens came in multiple colors and included tiny cake mix packets and round pans.
Once mixed with water and added to the pans, they were pushed through a narrow slot in the front of the oven into the cooking area.
Between 15 and 20 minutes later, the perfectly baked cakes were ejected through a similar slot in the opposite end.
Admittedly, no child was ever killed or exposed to cancer causing radiation while making blueberry muffins in an Easy-Bake Oven, but over the years there were a number of instances in which children got one of their hands stuck inside the slot and received nasty burns.
In one 2007 incident, a little girl’s hand was burnt so severely that she had to have a number of fingers amputated.
Official documents show that in 2007 alone, the company received nearly 250 individual reports, and urged by the CSPC, Hasbro recalled nearly 1 million Easy-Bake Ovens.
Keen to put the bad PR behind them once and for all, the company also issued a do-it-yourself repair kit to make the ovens safer, but families also had the option of returning their oven to the retailer where they’d purchased it in exchange for a product voucher they could use toward less dangerous toys.
Though the recall, repair kits and voucher schemes did reduce the number of incidents, they didn’t eliminate them altogether.
By that time many assumed that the Easy-Bake Ovens’ time had come and gone, but official Hasbro press releases stated that after five decades in production, they weren’t about to throw in the towel on what’d become a real classic, and a real money maker
Ironically, in 2003 just a few years before the massive recall, Hasbro’s Easy-Bake Ovens won the coveted Toy of the Year award from Parenting Magazine.
The original style ovens have been officially banned since 2017, but even now other smaller and less dangerous versions are available.
And gone are the days of boring old cake mixes and traditionally “girly” colors, because now they come with a number of new packets including banana bread, traditional brownies, red velvet cake and even pizza, and are available in more gender neutral colors that appeal to both boys and girls.