The Gilbert U-238 Atomic Energy Lab has the dubious distinction of being the most dangerous toy of all time.
The set contained four uranium ores that curious young scientists could test in various ways, including a game of Geiger counter-based hide and seek. One roundup of killer toys joked that the set was “positively glowing with danger.” Another quips that the Geiger counter could be used “to measure the amount of radiation left in their bodies after each play session.”
The toy’s instruction manual, anticipating parents’ concern, reassures users that the materials are safe. The three most dangerous samples were sealed in glass bottles. Left in the bottles, those samples should not have been dangerous, because the glass would have been sufficient to block any damaging radiation.
But kids do have a way of breaking glass bottles.
If kids managed to break or unseal the bottles, the samples (which contained lead and polonium) could have been extremely dangerous, especially if ingested. For example, polonium-laced tea was used to murder Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko.
There’s a tendency to look back at old toys like Gilbert’s Atomic Energy Lab and judge the generations of toymakers and parents who came before us. But if we look more carefully at the history of dangerous toys, we might wish for a few more atomic energy labs and a few less fidget spinners.
Yesterday’s dangerous toys
The Atomic Energy Lab’s 59-page instruction manual does not include any warnings against breaking the jars or eating the samples. That’s in part because the requirements about toy safety did not yet exist. That’s also because the toy’s creator, A.C. Gilbert, took kids seriously. The manual treats its users as capable and curious researchers.
In our safety-focused present, most of Gilbert’s products couldn’t even be brought to market. The Glass Blowing set, which required temperatures of 1,000 degrees, would likely have run afoul of electrical standards. The Chemistry Set included flammable substances. The Kaster Kit would certainly violate the CPSC’s restrictions on lead content in toys. Even the Erector Set might have been banned for small parts violations.
What all of Gilbert’s toys also have in common is their educational value. According to the Salem children’s museum built in his honor, Gilbert was an early pioneer in play-based learning: “Gilbert sensed the possibilities of scientific toys which would enable a child to play with ideas and hypotheses, and at the same time teach them about the laws of physics, engineering, and nature.” In 1918, when Congress ordered a halt to toy manufacturing in order to help the war effort, Gilbert “saved Christmas” by testifying about the educational value of toys.
Modern parents might see vintage toys as they do Irwin Mainway’s Bag O’ Glass. But while it’s true that many toys of that time carried risks, they were also designed to educate. There were alcohol-powered model trains that taught kids about combustion. There were child-sized versions of adult power tools. There were pint-sized stoves that could heat to 600 degrees, some of which are still available, as well as their successor, the Easy Bake Oven.
Today’s dangerous toys
With the creation of the Consumer Product Safety Commission in 1972, 15,000 types of products came under government regulation, including children’s toys. One of the earliest toys voluntarily-recalled after CPSC inquiry was the Battlestar Galactica Colonial Viper, whose projectile missiles passed CPSC regulations but still led to accidental ingestion and one four-year-old’s death. After the recall, Mattel began including a choking warning on its packaging, a version of which now appears on all toys with small parts.
Since then, the CPSC has issued warnings and/or recalls about many other toys. Slip ‘N Slides, when used by older teenagers and adults, could cause paralysis. Sky Dancers were surprisingly dangerous projectiles. Lawn Darts were completely unsurprising skull-piercing mini javelins intended for backyard use. Cabbage Patch Snacktime Kids dolls ate the plastic snacks included its box but also children’s hair.
If all of these toys seem rather tame compared to 600 degree ovens and atomic energy playsets, it’s because the CPSC’s laws and regulations help ensure that toys are safe before they go to market. Some unsafe products continue to make it to market, but the hazards they present are relatively benign. Good Housekeeping’s list of 2016’s most dangerous toys, for example, includes a set of Peppa Pig figurines, a stuffed elephant, and a plastic baby spoon, all considered choking hazards, as well as Banzai Bump N’ Bounce Body Bumpers, which are wearable inflatables designed to allow the user to bump into things without injury. The Good Housekeeping review suggests that toy should carry a warning about helmet use.
What makes a toy “dangerous?”
Today, in part thanks to the efforts of the CPSC, we don’t have to fear lead contamination, electric shock, or radiation poisoning. But throughout the transition to safer and safer toys, we’ve also come to define “danger” differently.
According to the CPSC’s mandate, the safety of a toy is not based on its proper use, but on its foreseeable use. Danger is now the hypothetical potential for harm if a child or parent uses a toy incorrectly. A kid can chew on a stuffed animal and choke on its buttons. A kid can put her hair into a mechanized doll and end up bald. A kid can break the jars and eat the uranium.
In redefining danger in this way, we have also transferred responsibility. Instead of trusting kids to be responsible, we now expect them to be irresponsible, placing the burden of safety on the toy maker. But that lulls us into a false sense of safety. If we take away the fidget spinner, our kid can’t improperly use and then choke on the fidget spinner. But he can still swallow a Barbie shoe, or a gumball, or a penny. The world is brimming with small parts.
What if we instead offer our kids more opportunity for risk-taking? We don’t need to put uranium back into toys to do this. But we could intentionally give our kids toys that demand responsible handling and then – this is the really scary part – trust our kids to use them safely.