Poor Big Bird! Like a canary in a coal mine, this feathered icon took a toxic hit last week when 967,000 Sesame Street and Nickelodeon toys were recalled due to lead paint. Suddenly, these trusted educational brands were associated with a heavy metal that can cause learning disabilities. According to Herbert L. Needleman, M.D., professor at the University of Pittsburgh Medical School and top researcher into the developmental and behavioral harm caused by lead exposure, lead remains the number one environmental health threat to children in this country, despite its removal from gasoline and house paint over twenty years ago. Made in China between April 19 and July 6, 2007, more than 300,000 of the lead-painted Mattel/ Fisher Price toys were sold to U.S. consumers. For a list of recalled items, go to http://www.cpsc.gov/, the website of the Consumer Products Safety Commission. For photos of all the offenders, see Mattel's site, http://www.mattel.com/. Fisher Price’s hotline, 800-916-4498, provides info as well. You can return a recalled item for a voucher that will get you a substitute toy of the same price. This is small compensation to parents, burdened with taking the toys away and the hassle of mailing them. It’s small consolation to children, who, on top of being inadequately protected by government and industry, may be disillusioned to learn that Giggle Grabber Elmo, as well as various Big Bird, Ernie, Oscar or Cookie items, could hurt them. This, on the heels of the mid-June recall of 1.5 million Thomas the Tank Engine & Friends trains and accessories by RC2 Corp, and 17.9 pieces of leaded children’s jewelry and charms recalled since 2005, may make parents wonder--with good reason--if any toy is safe. “My children don’t have any Fisher Price toys, but I wonder about all kinds of toys made in China, like some other baby toys we have,” says Ethan Won, father of three young children in Honolulu. His first job after art school at the Rhode Island School of Design was in toy manufacture, Ethan says. “And the paint on the Chinese-made miniature cars my older boys play with is always chipping off and taking bits of the soft metal, and it looks like lead, which makes sense because the forms have to be stamped out of a soft material like that,” he adds. Time to grab those giggles elsewhere! Below are some safer alternatives for children under three, who are most likely to put toys in their mouths and thus ingest lead. The following toys are also PVC-free and therefore free of phthalates, the hormone-disrupting chemicals used to soften this brittle plastic. Some PVC children’s products can also contain lead. Lead- and Phthalate-Free Toys Instead of the Sesame Street Shape Sorter, which is being recalled, give a Wooden Shape Sorter Puzzle, $22.95, or Wagon, $54.95, both made in Germany. Slightly older tots may like the challenge of a rubberwood Shape-Matching Puzzle, made in Thailand of fast-growing rubberwood, $19.95. All from The Playstore, http://www.playstoretoys.com/ Instead of lead-contaminated Elmo Stacking Rings, why not the charming new Witty Worm Stacker, crowned by a smiling antenna’ed head, in rubberwood from Rosie’s Hippo, http://rosiehippo.com/ ? The wooden Rainbow Stacking Tower with waterbased stains has triangle-shaped pieces, $29 from Nunoorganic, http://www.nunoorganic.com/. Classic wooden doughnuts fit on a Rocky Color Cone, $18.95 from Holgate Toys, http://www.holgatetoy.com/,which uses Forest Stewardship Council certified wood when it can. To console a child who’s had to surrender a Big Bird Collectible figurine, present an irresistible Bird Family Pull Toy with 3 bright birds in nontoxic colors and rubberwood, $29.95 and new from Rosie’s Hippo, above. While children who want to make a joyous sound had better not try it on the lead-painted Elmo Saxophone, they might enjoy a 4-tone train whistle, made in the U.S. from pine wood, $5.20 at http://www.mapleandmarks.com/, or a Hohner harmonica, made in Germany, $18.95, from Rosie’s Hippo. Adorable and affordable wooden trains, made in Vermont, include zoo animal, construction and emergency vehicle sets, $19 and up at Maple Landmarks, above. Before the Thomas train sets, there were (and still are) Brio wooden sets with nontoxic paint. Very pricey, but hey, they’re heirlooms, and a few go a long way. Cute wooden animals, too. http://www.briotoys.com/ For plastic toys comparable to the recalled Fisher Prices, see http://www.mrtoys.com/chicco-toys/ Other Tips: Avoid toys made in China as much as possible, unless the toy company can assure you that they do regular lead tests independently of their Chinese contractor, and/or the CPSC implements stricter regulations. Ideally, companies will provide independent third-party certification of lead-free composition for every toy. For a Toy Report Card that lists PVC-free manufacturers, see www.greenpeace.org/usa/news/2003-toy-report-card Why buy toys at all? In summer you and the children can play outside, skipping stones on the water, making leaf and gourd boats, paper airplanes, twig teepees, sand castles or clothespin dolls, collecting shells or interesting pebbles, watching birds, or blowing bubbles.