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Thu 30 Aug 2007 05:26 PM

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Toy story

Toys banned in other countries are still being sold in Dubai, so what are authorities doing to protect children?

Major toy stores in Dubai are packed with goodies from all over the world. Children and parents alike can snap up anything, from a cuddly toy to a water pistol, safe in the knowledge they have passed stringent safety tests. But some smaller shops in the city stock toys that are potentially damaging to your child. It's something the authorities here are determined to clamp down on. Hence the move to draft tough new regulations and ramp up the number of surprise inspections of imported toys at ports and the airport - and the stores themselves.

‘The problem is that Dubai Municipality does not always have enough inspectors to visit the shops selling these toys,' says Ahmed Abbas, an importer of European toys into Dubai. ‘The same thing happens at the ports - inspectors are simply unable to check every toy in a container and some that have not passed any safety tests get through and go on sale here. It is something that affects the industry, as parents will more often than not buy a cheap toy rather than an expensive one. Checking for a safety mark on the packaging is not something people think about very often.'

Time Out visited shops selling toys in various parts of the city, including Satwa, Karama and Deira. We were able to buy a toy train set that had been banned in America, and a pair of roller boots for kids that were withdrawn from sale in the UK after a child lost a finger on the spring mechanism. Also on sale were many toys that had no safety mark and appeared to have been cheaply manufactured in the Far East. When we spoke to traders selling these goods, they said most of them were bought from wholesalers in China and had no idea if they had passed safety tests or not. ‘We just buy containers full of various products from China and then put them on sale,' one of the shop owners in Satwa told Time Out. ‘The toys we get in the containers are not expensive and there are a lot of people in Dubai who do not have the money to shop in the malls. Also we get people coming in who do have quite a bit of money but want a bargain. I would not sell these toys knowing they were dangerous. But whether they have passed a safety test is not something that I have thought about.'

In many parts of the world a logo is put on toy packaging if it has passed a safety test - the CE mark in Europe is probably most well known - but until now that has not been the case in the UAE. However, the Emirates Standardisation and Metrology Department (ESMA) is introducing the Emirates Quality Mark, which companies will be allowed to use if a particular product has passed a series of safety tests set by inspectors. ‘We will test anything - whether it has been made here or abroad and it will make things better for the consumer,' says Muammar Mustafa, a director at ESMA.

The drawback with the new quality mark is that it is only a voluntary scheme - so it will still be legal to sell a toy without ESMA approval. The power to remove dangerous toys from the shelves will continue to fall solely to Dubai Municipality. ‘We are aware that there are some toys on sale here that have not passed any tests,' says an official at the municipality. ‘If we find this happening when we inspect shops then we take the product away and have it tested. If it fails, we confiscate the goods. We are increasing the amount of inspections we do and also it has been decided that if someone is knowingly selling something that has been banned here or elsewhere, then they can be prosecuted. A big help is when members of the public tell us about a toy that could be dangerous to children that is being sold in Dubai.'

The municipality has had some success in removing dangerous toys from sale and has then made sure inspectors at the airport and ports stop them entering the country. In the middle of last year a young boy had to be taken to hospital after burning himself on a joke ‘Shock Choc' chocolate bar toy that produces a large spark when one end of the bar is pulled. The municipality launched a series of inspections, confiscated hundreds of the toys and the importer was prosecuted.

Shop owners openly admit the reason they sell toys that have not passed any tests is that they are far cheaper. This means higher profit margins - and there is a thriving market in Dubai for such goods. It is hoped the new Emirates Quality Mark will raise standards and encourage parents to check for a safety logo when buying toys - even if it means paying that little bit extra. However, because it is not compulsory, parents are being warned to look for some sort of safety assurance on a product before handing over their cash. ‘We understand that it is not easy for the public to know for certain whether a toy on sale here is unsafe,' adds the municipality official. ‘But if there is no safety mark on a toy we will investigate.'

To report a complaint about any goods being sold in Dubai call Dubai Municipality on 800 900.

Total recall

Last week, children's toy manufacturer Mattel instigated one of the largest product recalls in history by ordering the return of 18 million toys worldwide, nine million of which had been made in China. Toys including SpongeBob SquarePants, Polly Pocket and Barbie were all found to have magnets which could come loose, and if swallowed, cause serious internal complications in youngsters. Although on an unprecedented scale, Mattel's recall is far from rare. Greg Aris looks back at some of the toys which should never have been put in the hands of children.

Water Wiggle 1978

More than two million Water Wiggles had been sold in the US by the late 70s. Despite its jovial name, the toy, a seven-foot plastic hose attached to an aluminium water-jet, which was designed to be attached to a garden hose, killed two tots in separate incidents. Both youngsters drowned after the water head came off and the exposed aluminium nozzle became wedged in their mouths.

Combat Copter 1983

Manufacturers recalled the toy chopper, which, when activated by a pull crank system, would zip off into the air. But authorities reported at least 30 incidents when the Combat Copter would fly back towards the child, causing deep cuts to the face.

Zapper Toys 1998

Between two and three inches long, these cute bumble bee, smiley faces and troll toys came with a balloon tongue, which rolled out of the mouth when squeezed. More than 800,000 of the toys were recalled after it was discovered the tongues could easily fly off into a child's mouth, causing several incidents of suffocation.

Fisher Price dolls 2007

More than 967,000 characters from Sesame Street and Dora The Explorer were recalled between March and August this year after tests revealed the paint used on the toys contained highly toxic lead - lethal to young children. No incidents have been reported so far.

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