A safety scare involving the holiday season's hottest toy cooled off Monday after federal safety regulators quickly put to rest claims that one model of the bestselling Zhu Zhu Pets contained toxic levels of the element antimony.
"The Consumer Product Safety Commission confirmed today that the popular Zhu Zhu toy is not out of compliance with the antimony or other heavy-metal limits of the new U.S. mandatory toy standard," agency spokesman Scott Wolfson said.
"We will still do our own independent testing at CPSC. But we're confident today and can confirm that the toy does not violate the very protective antimony standard that applies to all toys in the United States," Wolfson said.
Toy safety has been a hot-button issue in recent years after a spate of recalls in 2007 sparked fears about toy-making standards and led to more stringent testing measures. Millions of toys were recalled that year because of unsafe levels of lead or other safety hazards, including magnets that could come loose and, if swallowed, attach to one another and tear a child's intestines.
Last week, consumer website GoodGuide said its testing had shown that Mr. Squiggles, one of the Zhu Zhu robotic hamsters that have been selling out at stores nationwide, contained levels of antimony above what the federal government considers acceptable. Antimony, used in making metal alloys, has been linked to heart and lung problems.
After thousands of alarmed parents took to blogs and online message boards over the weekend, the Consumer Product Safety Commission announced Monday morning that it was "looking into the Zhu Zhu pet toy and we will complete our review swiftly."
Within hours, the safety agency said it had talked with executives at Zhu Zhu maker Cepia, examined the product and reviewed independent testing reports that showed the toy was safe.
For its part, GoodGuide began backtracking Monday afternoon, releasing a statement that clarified its testing methods and apologized for comparing its findings to federal standards.
"Since issuing our release, we have learned that the testing methodology used in the federal standards (a soluble method) is different than the methodology we used in our testing (a surface-based method)," the San Francisco group said. "Accordingly, while we accurately reported the chemical levels in the toys that we measured using our testing method, we should not have compared our results to federal standards. We regret this error."
Cepia vehemently denied any safety hazards in the Mr. Squiggles hamster and blasted the consumer group for taking its findings public without first contacting the St. Louis manufacturer.
"They accused us falsely of having high levels of antimony and tin in Mr. Squiggles by using a methodology that is not used by any federal standards," said Natalie Hornsby, Cepia's vice president of marketing. "Their testing was certainly not comprehensive and certainly not at the government standard."
Zhu Zhu owners such as Alicen Kovacic, 34, said they felt reassured. The paralegal from La Crescenta, who scored a Mr. Squiggles hamster after waiting for nearly six hours at a Toys R Us on Thanksgiving night, had planned to take the toy back to the store before learning that it was safe.
"I definitely feel relieved and I'm glad that it was looked into really quickly," Kovacic said. "I don't think I'm going to return it now."
Zhu Zhu Pets, which began showing up on EBay and other websites for four times the retail price, scamper around on wheels, make giggling and chattering sounds and can be paired with accessories such as a "hamstermobile" and garage.
They sell for about $10 at stores including Wal-Mart, Target and Toys R Us; all three retailers said Monday that they were standing by the product.
"All test reports we have clearly indicate that the Zhu Zhu Pets product meets all federal safety requirements," Toys R Us said in a statement.
GoodGuide did not respond to requests seeking comment.
Although the toys were declared safe, the recent frenzy could still hurt the toy's popularity, said M. Eric Johnson, a toy industry expert and professor at Dartmouth College's Tuck School of Business.
"It's the worst possible timing for Zhu Zhu," he said. "When stories like these get ahead of a small company, it can swamp it."