Various toy pistols

Noise Limits for Toys

Just one shot of a toy cap pistol could permanently damage the hearing capacity. When a child fired a shot close to his ear (or the ear of another person) the resulting sound peak levels at the position of the ear were as high as 160 decibels. These levels were of the same order as those of real firearms and considerably above the ones allowed at the workplace in the European Union.

It has taken almost 10 years to set adequate limits for this type of noise within the European standardisation body CEN. The commercial interests of the relevant industry have prevailed over the protection of the hearing capacities of children. Austria raised a formal objection to the standard upon initiative of the Consumer Council. The Commission followed the arguments of the consumer advocates, CEN had to correct its position.

A revised version of the toy standard EN 71-1 ("Safety of toys - Mechanical and physical properties") was published in 1998. One of the differences, if compared with the previous edition, was the incorporation of noise limit values.

More noise than permitted at the workplace

This addition was to be welcomed even though the limit for impulsive noise emitted by cap pistols and similar toys using percussion caps was set much too high. For a transitional period of three years a limit of 140 dB measured at a distance of half a meter from the sound source was set. If a child fires a shot in close distance towards an ear (which could easily happen in practice) the corresponding effective noise level is about 160 decibels.

This is much higher than the applicable limit of 140 dB for a work place in the European Union which is related to the position of the ear. Exposure to just one impulse (shot) can lead to an irreversible damage of the hearing capacity or to tinnitus (buzzing in the ears). In a recent German study 20 cases of acute acoustic trauma caused by toy pistols has been presented (Fleischer G, Hoffmann E, Lang R und Müller R: Dokumentation der Auswirkungen von Kinderknallpistolen. HNO 47, 535-540 (1999)). Several cases have been also reported from other countries. It is very likely that they are to be seen just as the tip of the iceberg as such injuries will often remain undetected. Children will only notice the damage if it is severe and only then inform their parents. And even if so, it cannot be taken for granted that medical advice is sought and the case is registered.

Various toy pistols

All warnings on the part of several prominent European noise protection experts have been ignored. For instance, Prof. Axelsson, Dr. Paschier Vermeer and Prof. Smoorenburg provided a paper containing the statement: "The toy should be manufactured in such a way that it is under no circumstances possible that the toy exposes the child (or a third party) to to more than 140 dB peak." Also the WHO criteria document on community noise contains a similar recommendation. Some experts even hold the view that the limit for toys should be somewhat lower given the uncertainties in the risk assessment (e.g. the sensitivity of children to noise is not known).

Only after expiry of the transitional period it was foreseen to reduce the level to such an extent that even under the most unfavourable conditions noise levels exceeding 140 dB cannot occur (125 dB at a distance of 50 cm). The only positive aspect in this matter.

Hearing damage possible

In view of numerous studies providing evidence of a high degree of hearing loss among teen-agers the limit for impulse noise was judged to be absolutely unacceptable. Consequently the authorities of Germany and - upon the initiative of the Consumer Council - Austria challenged this standard on the grounds that it was not in conformity with the protection goals of the Toys Directive (safeguard clause procedure).

This point of view was supported by a majority of the Member States both in the Working Group on Toy Safety of the Commission and in the Committee "Standards and Technical Regulations" (Committee 98/34) and also by ANEC, the European Organisation for Consumer Representation in Standardisation. Hence, the relevant clause of the standard was not acknowledged when the reference was published in the Official Journal (OJ C 215/4, 28.7.1999). The rationale presented by the Commission (OJ C 259/05, 11.9.1999) pointed out very clearly that the value set in the toys standard can lead to noise exposures exceeding 140 dB considerably which may result in hearing damage.

Anatomy of the ear
Illustration by David Chapman

Commission insists on low limit

In the first instance it was not possible to set a safe limit when CEN prepared an amendment to the standard. Only the nordic countries and Austria - represented by the Consumer Council - defended the interests of children. The value was slightly reduced to 134 dB (at 50 cm distance, equivalent to 155 dB at the ear), but this was still considerably above the work place limit. In turn, the above mentioned lower value of 125 dB intended to come into force after the transitional period was deleted. In other words: the relatively safe value for the future was removed. In fact, this was clearly a step backward. The interests of the relevant toy industry had been given higher priority as compared to the protection of children.

Thereupon, the opinion of the Member States was once more heard by the Commission. Again a clear majority voiced its disapproval concerning the adoption of the standard. Hence, the Commission communicated to CEN in another letter that the envisaged limit did not comply with the Toys Directive. In addition, the Commission decided to fully recognise the 98th edition of the toys standard as the 3 years transitional period would come to an end in summer 2001. At the same time the Commission clarified its unwillingness to accept any standard containing a limit higher than 125 dB.

Due to the enormous pressure the CEN committee responsible for toys eventually abandoned its opposition and stopped its efforts to increase the limit again. This fact represented a great success for the European consumer representatives and the Austrian Consumer Council. It had taken almost 10 years of intensive lobbying and struggle for the safety of children.

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