Zhu Zhu Pets: How Toxic...Or Not?

Three stuffed animal brown and white Zhu Zhu Pets.

russell davies / Flickr / CC BY-NC 2.0

The must-have Christmas toy, Zhu Zhu Pets are pronounced safe, according to US federal safety regulators. The Consumer Product Safety Commission, which tested the furry faux hamster that every toddler in America has on their list for Santa, and gave the robotic critter a thumbs up. But the consumer advocacy group, GoodGuide, might beg to differ.

The holiday toy of 2009 that parents are clamoring to purchase for their children is like the Tickle Me Elmo and Beanie Babies of the past - tough to find since supplies sell out as soon as it's stocked. Some of the elves are resorting to eBay, paying inflated prices of up to $60. I'm usually suspicious of a lack of availability of must-have, can't find kid's holiday gifts. Don't companies know when they are on Toys R' Us' hotlist to ramp up production? Maybe not to the tune of 220,000 a day or 6 million and counting upwards to 60 mils, according to estimates of year-end sales. One reason for the sensation is the recession-friendly $8-$10 price tag.

But the important point is about the controversy over GoodGuide's testing of Mr. Squiggles which "showed that certain popular holiday toys contained levels of antimony and chromium that exceeded federal standards." The antimony was measured at 93 parts per million in the hamster's fur and at 106 parts per million in its nose. Both readings exceed the allowable level of 60 parts per million, explained CEO Dara O'Rourke, an associate professor of environmental science at the University of California, Berkeley.

Guinea Pigs?

Three Zhu Zhu Pets on a hardwood floor.

Martin Weller / Flickr / CC BY-NC 2.0

GoodGuide recommends "safe, healthy and green products" including a list of the Greenest Toy Companies of 2009 with "information on the health, environmental, and social impacts of products in your home" - from chemicals in baby shampoo to sweatshop labor used to make your t-shirt.

Toymaker Cepia was quick to defend its Zhu Zhu Pet (or Go-Go Hamster as it's called in the UK). The CPSC came out to say its testing of the five Zhu Zhus declared the "pet" safe according to its rigorous methodology. (Got to wonder about all those toys that are too toxic.) So GoodGuide pulled the review stating: "We want to apologize again for comparing our test results with federal standards that are based on a different testing method." As a result, they're changing the protocol.

The scare hasn't deterred parents. Check out the vitriolic comments from outraged people (i.e.: "What a line of BS" and "How can you live with yourselves?"). Wouldn't you think parents would care more about possible toxic levels? GoodGuide lists lots of recommended toys from Hot Wheels Hybrid Racers to Barbie's Life Vest as well as Plan and Green Toys.

Is this a valuable toy a good toy for children, 4 years and up? Okay, not all toys have to be educational but Zhu Zhu mania is fueled by statements in television ads like: "They're so much fun - without the mess!" Kids watch as a little artificial pet zips around a maze. Puts it in a car and it zooms, on a skateboard and zoosh. It coos and squeals. The most interactive part is tykes coaxing them around corners and onto its wheel.

Though Num Num, Patches, PipSqueak, and the others in the persuasive television commercial are only $8, but what about all the accessories? The Funhouse of tunnels costs $22, Wobble Ball $13, Car and garage $18, Carrier and blanket $16, and Skateboard $13. More plastic goodies for the landfill.

Zhu Zhu means "little pig" in Chinese. As in guinea pig? It's not being Scroogey to recommend greener kids' toys as a healthier alternative.