Choking Hazard Warning, and Other Toy Warning Labels

During the holiday season, many children are getting presents from many different angles – relatives, friends, schoolmates, and elsewhere. Understandably, it is a time of fun, anticipation, and excitement for these kids, who often want to rip open packages and start playing with their toys right away.

However, it might always not be safe to let children just start playing with toys. Before handing toys over, or helping to open them, its a good idea for parents to take a look at the warning labels to make sure they understand what hazards may be present.

Why Do We Even Have Warning Labels?

Warning labels have been around for a long time. They are like signs posted on a product’s retail packaging by the manufacturer to advise consumers of a safety issue associated with the product; to raise awareness. Like any other sign, it’s at the consumer’s discretion whether to read and head the warning or to just ignore it.

If warning labels were 100% effective, then everybody would have quit smoking in 1966 when the federally mandated Surgeon General warning first appeared on cigarette packs, “Caution: Cigarette Smoking May Be Hazardous to  Your Health.” Far less people smoke now than back then, so it must have had some positive influence.

In the case of children, they are not capable of reading and understanding the warning labels placed on toys and other products that they may use. It is therefore up to parents (and other relatives) to do their due diligence and to read the safety labels and understand the hazards being communicated by the label.

What Those Warnings Mean

The Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) mandates several different warning labels, depending on the specific safety issue, be placed on toys. The CPSC has very specific requirements as to the formulation of these warning labels. There are requirements for font size, color contrast, where the label is placed on the retail packaging (usually the principal display panel), triangle with an exclamation mark inside, a signal word, a statement of hazard and the cautionary material.

The greatest risk posed to toddlers under three years of age by toys are choking on, inhaling or swallowing small objects that came from a toy. This includes pieces that may have broken off during play.  This is why toys for children under 3 are subject to third party use and abuse testing prior to being certified by the testing lab.

The most commonly seen and one of the most important warning labels in the CPSC arsenal is the small parts warning label:

WARNING: Choking Hazard label

Warning: Choking Hazard label (Click for larger version)

Signal WordStatement of HazardCautionary Material
WarningChoking HazardSmall Parts. Not for children under 3 yrs.
how choking hazards are determined

Choking test cylinder (Click for larger version)

I think most consumers have their own idea of what a small part is, but how does the CPSC officially determine if an object is a small part or not? The agency designed a simple testing device known as a small parts test cylinder that approximates the size of the fully expanded throat of a child under three years old.

A small part is any object that fits entirely inside the test cylinder. It can be the whole toy or article; a separate part of a toy, game, or other article; or a piece of a toy or article that breaks off during testing that simulates use or abuse by children. Any failure of this test determines the product is not suitable for children under three and is; therefore, a banned product.

Curious as to whether you have any small parts in your home? Small parts test cylinders similar to those used by CPSC can be purchased online for a few dollars.

Small Parts or No Small Parts?

I would like to illustrate the difference between a toy suitable for a child under three years with no small parts or removable components vs a toy with small parts intended for a child over three years.

Example 1: Ballino Grabbing Ball

The toy depicted below is age labeled ½+ or 6 months. It is all wood, brightly colored, has no removable components and has a flexible center dowel that allows the child to make a clacking sound with the disks when handled.

toy that does not pose a choking hazard

Example of a toy that does not pose a choking hazard (Click for larger version)

Example 2: Action Figure

This action figure is depicted with its accessories attached and with them detached. All of the accessories fit entirely into the test cylinder. This makes them small parts, a choking hazard and not suitable for a child under three years. The toy’s retail packaging would have to be labeled with the small parts warning label illustrated above. As you can see, the hat fits entirely into the small parts test cylinder, indicating a small part.

toy with small parts that is a choking hazard

Toy with choking hazards (Click for larger version)

disassembled toy with small parts

Disassembled toy with small parts (Click for larger version)

choking hazard in test cylinder

Choking hazard in test cylinder (Click for larger version)


Small Balls (Less Than 1.75” in Diameter) and Marbles

There are two basic variations of the warning label for small balls: balls sold separately (e.g., in a bin, rather than in a package) and those that are packaged as part of a bigger product. For the first type, the bin containing the balls is required to have the a warning label.


CHOKING HAZARD-This toy is a small ball.
Not for children under 3yrs.

CHOKING HAZARD-Toy contains a small ball.
Not for children under 3yrs.

CHOKING HAZARD-This toy is a marble.
Not for children under 3 yrs.

CHOKING HAZARD-Toy contains a marble.
Not for children under 3 yrs.

This label has morphed to also include small parts and is acceptable by CPSC. See example below.

Small ball warning label example

Small ball warning label (click for larger version)

Choking warning label – small ball hazard

Choking warning label for small ball (click for larger version)

Balloons and Small Magnets

Balloons are choking hazards, especially when uninflated or broken. Therefore, packages of balloons are required to contain a warning.

Small rare earth or strong magnets have posed serious health issues, including death, to children in the past. When a child swallows more than one of these type magnets, they are able to stick together in the victim’s intestines. CPSC has since implemented a safety standard in which magnets contained in magnet sets have to be far less powerful than those used in the past. It also mandates a warning label be placed on magnet containing products.


CHOKING HAZARD-Children under eight years can
choke or suffocate on uninflated or broken balloons.
Adult supervision required.
Keep uninflated balloons from children.
Discard broken balloons at once.

Swallowed magnets can stick together across intestines causing serious infections and death.
Seek immediate medical attention if magnet(s) are swallowed or inhaled.

Art Materials Certification

In the early 1990’s, a law was enacted (Labeling of Hazardous Art Materials Act) to require that children’s art materials be non-toxic and not pose any chronic health hazards under normal use. Children’s products that meet this definition include, but are not limited to:

  • Crayons
  • Chalk
  • Paint sets
  • Colored pencils
  • Modeling clay

The standard is set forth in the ASTM International standard designated D-4236. The required statement on the product is “Conforms to ASTM-D4236.”

Arts and crafts material warning label

Arts & Crafts material warning label (click for larger version)

International Labeling

European choking hazard label

European choking hazard label (click for larger version)

Some of the larger toy manufacturers retail their products in the global market.  Due to the many labeling requirement of the different markets, the manufacturers try to get them all on one package.  I’m sure you have seen packaging in a million different languages.  Sometimes trying to find the English version is like a “Find Waldo” picture.  In my experience, these multinational labeled toys usually contain many errors.

This example is the small parts, not for under 3 years label required in Europe.  You will sometimes see this label in the U.S., even though the correct label is the one depicted at the beginning of this article.

Keep Your Kids Safe – Read the Labels!

The intention of this article is to be a guide to consumers to help make some rhyme or reason out of all those labels seen on toys and children’s products. However, the labels do no good if nobody reads them, so make sure to read the labels on the toys and other products you buy for your children – and follow them!