Washington: US government officials worry that the economic downturn will drive money-conscious parents to buy used toys tainted by lead or with dangerous designs in the holiday shopping season.

Government safety officials are particularly concerned that parents will purchase holiday gifts from second-hand, online sellers who may not be aware of safety issues. “In stretching today’s dollar, we do not want you to sacrifice safety," acting consumer product safety commission (CPSC) chairperson Nancy Nord said on Wednesday. She encouraged parents to research any products they buy secondhand for prior recalls.

An Associated Press analysis of CPSC data shows most of this year’s recalls were not from the big toy makers, but from smaller companies, and most of the products were made in China. The rest came from Vietnam, India, Peru, Taiwan and Korea.

Nord stressed the CPSC’s increased vigilance in targeting unsafe toys. “The real good news this season, is the fact that the agency is inspecting more, but we are finding fewer violations," Nord said.

She noted that a new port-inspections programme resulted in 238 seized shipments of toys, which were denied entry for safety violations.

However this import surveillance programme is conducted by just nine people.

Recalls of toys or children’s products because of lead paint or lead content are down sharply, from a record 112 in 2007 to 64 this year. There were 20 lead recalls in 2006 and only 13 in 2005.

“I don’t think at this point that anyone who makes a toy is looking to save a little bit extra on the margin by using cheap materials," says Michael Green, executive director of the Centre for Environmental Health. “But I am not confident that they’re all going to be able to do the job and get the lead out."

Even though lead has been banned in paint in the US since the 1970s, it has still turned up in millions of toys in recent years. Lead poisoning can cause irreversible learning disabilities, behavioural problems and, at very high levels, seizures, coma and death.

Last year’s record recalls spurred action this summer in the US Congress, which passed new rules aimed at ensuring nearly lead-free toys and children’s products. But the widely praised limits don’t kick in early enough to affect this holiday shopping season.

Big toy makers such as Mattel Inc. and Hasbro Inc. say their products are already rigorously tested for lead. Both companies test the paint and other raw materials used in their toys before manufacturing. They then take test samples during the manufacturing process and later test the finished product.

The current limit on lead paint on a children’s product is 600 parts per million (ppm). The new law will lower that to 90ppm next summer. Children’s advocates say 600ppm is dangerous, especially for babies who often mouth toys.