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Sounding out

Lifestyle | Many toys make too much noise for the health of the children who play with them

Issue: "2010 Books Issue," July 3, 2010

Baby Einstein Farm Friends (Play-A-Song). Fisher Price Laugh & Learn Learning Letters Mailbox. LeapFrog Learn & Groove Counting Maracas. What do these toys have in common? They are noisy and designed for toddler play.

Julee Sylvester works at the nonprofit Sight & Hearing Association in St. Paul, Minn. Every autumn since 1998 she's gone shopping at a local toy store, sound meter in hand, to test the noise levels of various toys. She pushes buttons and takes a quick reading. Then she buys some of the toys for further testing. Last year she bought 19 toys, including the toys above. University of Minnesota researchers tested the 19 toys in a more rigorous fashion, measuring the noise level close to the toy's speaker and 10 inches away, to imitate the different ways a child might play with the toy. Fifteen of the 19 toys emitted sounds louder than 100 decibels (dB) at the speaker and above 80 dB at a distance of 10 inches.

Sylvester estimates that 75 to 80 percent of toys intended for young children have buttons, which mean noise. Is the noise loud enough to be harmful? Pam Mason, head of the audiology practices section of the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association says anything above 85 dB can cause hearing loss. It's not just the intensity, she says, but duration and repeated duration. Kids who listen all day long to loud sounds face "a greater risk of getting a noise induced hearing loss."

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Since 2004 some toymakers have followed a voluntary standard that suggests toys should not exceed 90 decibels at 10 inches from the speaker. There's no requirement that toys meet that standard-and the standard is silly when applied to toys meant for babies and toddlers whose arms aren't much longer than 10 inches. They aren't going to hold the toy in an outstretched arm, especially if it is a cuddly toy like Tickle Me Elmo.

So what should parents do? Most parents don't go toy shopping with a sound meter, so Sylvester says they need to use common sense: "If the toy is too loud for you, it is too loud for your child." She also recommends that people buy toys without buttons; your kids can make their own noise. Look for toys that have a volume control and set it at the lowest volume. Take out the batteries. Sylvester says at her house she sticks clear packing tape over the toy's speaker to muffle the sound.

Mason says parents need to understand that well-meaning gifts can be dangerous: "Even a mild hearing loss has huge negative consequences" for a child, especially since it can affect speech development.

How did Baby Einstein and the other toys score? The Baby Einstein board book (which a child is likely to hold near her ear) scored above 111 dB at the speaker and 81 dB 10 inches away. The Fisher Price mailbox scored above 113 dB at the speaker and 91.5 at arm's length. The LeapFrog maracas (intended for babies 6 months and up) scored above 102 dB at the speaker and above 85 dB 10 inches away. Sylvester says she's tested toys from all major manufacturers in different price ranges: "There's no rhyme or reason why one is loud."

The origami option

Next time your child complains that it is hot outside and there's nothing to do, check out a fabulous website that has instructions for doing origami, the Japanese paper-folding craft. The website provides animated instructions as well as diagrams for hundreds of different creations, divided into 25 categories. Under the animal category were 53 different critters, including pandas, hamsters, pigs, hippos, chameleons, snakes, and swans. The site is origami-club.com, but if you want the English rather than the Japanese version, use this address: http://en.origami-club.com.

Stormy weather

Hurricane season, which runs from June 1 to Nov. 30, is here. Experts expect as many as a dozen hurricanes and two dozen storms big enough to name.

Since 1950 the Weather Bureau has officially named hurricanes according to the letters of the alphabet. The World Meteorological Organization keeps a six-year cycle of names, so this year the storms will carry the same first letters as storms in 2004, which was a bad hurricane year. Four major hurricanes-Charley, Francis, Ivan, and Jeanne-hit Florida that year. Those names are now retired to the history books, but Colin, Fiona, Igor, and Julia will take their places.

According to the Census Bureau, 12 percent of the nation's population lives in coastal areas stretching from North Carolina to Texas that are most vulnerable to hurricanes. The population in those areas has increased from 14 million in 1960 to 36.2 million in 2009.

Susan Olasky
Susan Olasky

Susan pens book reviews and other articles for WORLD as a senior writer and has authored eight historical novels for children. Susan and her husband Marvin live in Asheville, N.C. Follow Susan on Twitter @susanolasky.

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