Colorful latex balloons are a great joy for people of all ages, but for small children, they pose a great risk.
Toddlers not only play with balloons, they like to bite them too. And when balloons pop, as they often do, some children put pieces of the latex in their mouths and choke. In fact, safety experts say, latex balloons kill more small children than any other toy.
Dr. Charles Shubin, a Baltimore pediatrician, says prevention is the best way to keep small children from chewing and choking on latex balloons. Simply put, don't let toddlers play with them.
If a child is choking on a latex balloon, Shubin said, the best thing for parents to do is to perform an "oral sweep," reaching into the child's mouth and removing what is blocking the airway.
"The Heimlich maneuver is not particularly helpful because of the nature of the object," Shubin said. Balloons are not easily projected out of the mouth.
So many safety warnings about balloons have been published in newspapers and magazines that the maker of Barney the purple dinosaur merchandise--Lyrick Studios / Lyons Group in Allen, Texas--has removed latex balloons from its list of party pack enclosures. It is leaving only Mylar (silver-colored, polyester film) balloons available for consumers. The federal Consumer Product Safety Commission considers Mylar balloons safer than latex. (The Barney party packs with latex balloons will remain in stores until the last pack has been sold.)
The commission and the consumer group U.S. Public Interest Research Group agree that latex balloons can be hazardous. The consumer group maintains that 11 of 13 of the most recently reported toy-related deaths were caused by latex balloons. The safety commission says balloon chokings caused six of the 13 toy-related deaths reported in the United States in 1997, and 48 of the 160 toy-related deaths in the country during the first seven years of the 1990s.
Katie Nohe, consumer advocate for the Maryland Public Interest Research Group, says that latex balloons have been the No. 1 child-killer among toys because they pop. "They expand. They're small enough to be edible. That's pretty much asking for trouble." Toys for toddlers should be even bigger than a toy for an older child, she said. If balloon makers would "stop marketing them to little kids . . . that will take out a big part of the risk."
The consumer group contends that the reason children have died is inappropriate marketing. "Balloons marketed for toddler birthdays or containing such child-friendly figures as Barney are inappropriate," it states on its Web site.
The maker of Barney products said it didn't decide to end production of latex balloons earlier this year because parents or officials complained, but because "we had become concerned ourselves," says Kelly Lane, public relations director for Lyrick Studios / Lyons Group. "We are always looking for ways to be safe."
For more information on balloon and other toy safety, see the Consumer Product Safety Commission Web site at http://www.cpsc.gov and the U.S. Public Interest Research Group Web site at http://www.pirg.org.