Everybody loves a bargain. That’s why so many of us flock to dollar stores, unloading loose change on cut-rate staples and inexpensive tchotchkes. When it comes to safety, though, you may only get what you pay for. Some manufacturers of cheap goods cut corners to boost their own profits and “are not as cautious as they might be in keeping all their products safe,” says Bruce Cran, president of the Consumers’ Association of Canada. But let’s not throw out the $1 baby doll with the bathwater. You can still shop for dollar-store deals and keep your family safe — just follow these guidelines:
Steer clear of metal objects a child might put in his mouth, including jewellery, key chains, trinkets or small toys. There’s no way to know (short of a lab test) whether these items contain high levels of lead or cadmium — heavy metals that are toxic when ingested, yet widely used in metal dollar-store items because they’re inexpensive.
Lead is also commonly found in paints and glazes, which can chip off and be inhaled or swallowed, so avoid painted goods — anything from toys to tableware. In 2008, for example, Health Canada recalled 7,000 toy guns sold in dollar stores because the paint on them contained lead over the federal limit, and in 2007 issued an advisory on 140,000 packages of pencils with high lead levels in their coating.
Look for tamper-proof packaging and expiry or best-before dates on food, medications, toiletries and batteries. It’s a hard-and-fast rule for Kitchener, Ont., mom Ann Wong, who occasionally buys name brand candy, chips or nuts at the dollar store. “If it has no expiry date, I won’t buy it,” she says.
Some items may look like trusted name brands, but consumers need to be wary of counterfeit products that might not be safe. For example, in the past five years, dollar stores or other Canadian retailers have sold counterfeit products, including shampoo contaminated with disease-causing bacteria, toothpaste containing chemicals found in antifreeze, toothbrushes with improperly secured bristles posing a choking hazard, and household batteries that exploded and burned children.
To minimize your risk of getting duped — and hurt — by counterfeits, avoid name brand products if the packaging looks flimsy, has an unfamiliar label or contains misspelled words. Health Canada also suggests reputable stores with a refund or exchange policy are less likely to carry counterfeits.
Feel free to load up on paper products — greeting cards, gift bags and wrap, activity and colouring books, notepads, school supplies, stickers, tissues and napkins. Other safe bets are party supplies and decorations, large storage bins, balls for older kids (watch babies around soft vinyl or plastic toys that aren’t specifically designed for teething) and clothing if it appears well made (it’s obviously not a bargain if it falls apart after one wearing).
And if your child tends to leave a trail of socks and hats behind, Wong recommends stocking up on these items at the dollar store. She picked up a pair of earmuffs for her son Randall, age five, last winter: “He’ll lose them anyway — so they might as well be cheap.”