An investigation has revealed serious safety concerns about one of the most popular children's toys on the market -- that is still being sold in stores despite consumer calls for a recall.
The Fisher-Price Soothe & Glow Seahorse is the seventh best-selling toddler toy on Amazon.com, but it's also the subject of dozens of negative reviews and at least 10 complaints to the Consumer Product Safety Commission from parents who say it got dangerously hot and even started smoking, when they simply changed the batteries.
The investigation was completed by 23ABC affiliate 7 News in Denver.
Triana Burdick says the toy is a favorite in her house. Each of her two children has one.
"I think the light is kind of soothing to them, in the dark, and then the music," Burdick said. "They always liked listening to it, falling asleep."
Burdick's son Christopher got his Soothe & Glow Seahorse four years ago. His little sister Lila's was a gift in 2011.
"It usually was in their bed all the time," Burdick said. "Whenever they napped; whenever we put them down."
But when Burdick changed the batteries in Lila's doll for the first time, she said it felt hot, and she heard a sizzling noise. Then the battery coils started heating up, and smoke poured out of the toy.
"It was melting the plastic on the inside," Burdick said. "The first thought that went through my head was like, 'Oh, my God, it could have caught fire. It could have caught a blanket in her bed on fire.' I freaked out right away."
Burdick showed the toy to her husband, and they checked to make sure the batteries were correctly installed.
"Everything was fine," she said. "So we just assumed, I don't know, maybe it was a random malfunction."
But the CPSC complaints and Amazon.com reviews, which date from October 2012 to as recently as February 2014, show it wasn't random at all.
One reviewer wrote, "The toy just suddenly started burning …"
Another wrote he picked up his daughter's seahorse and "it was stinking, took the cover off it and the battery compartment was smoking, removed the backing and the spring was orange and had melted the plastic around it."
Still another wrote, "Does a house have to burn down before they recall this thing?"
The online complaints included problems when using both regular alkaline and rechargeable batteries. The Soothe & Glow Seahorse manual says both types are acceptable.
Burdick said when she called Fisher-Price, they told her to send them the toy in exchange for a new one.
So CALL7 Investigator Keli Rabon found another family who experienced the same problem -- and took their toy to University of Denver electrical engineering professor Dr. David Gao.
Seconds after he put in three brand new batteries, the coil began to burn. It turned bright red, smoke poured out of the compartment, and the plastic casing around it began to melt.
Four minutes later, Gao took the battery out.
"The coil is about to fall, due to the burning and the heat," he said.
Gao said the burn risk isn't the only problem. He said the fumes from the melting plastic can be poisonous, and overheated batteries are dangerous, too.
"If we left this burning to keep going, the battery may explode," he said.
Dr. Gao said he believes the problem with the Soothe & Glow Seahorse is a design flaw that involves the battery coil, metal, wiring, and soldering inside the toy.
"I think this product should be recalled," he said.
Instead, the CALL7 Investigators found Fisher-Price may have quietly addressed the problem without issuing a recall for the faulty toys already in consumers' homes. The seahorse Dr. Gao tested used three batteries, as did Burdick's problem toy, and the examples CALL7 found online. But a brand new Soothe & Glow Seahorse purchased on Amazon.com requires only two batteries -- not three. The toys are otherwise nearly identical, and both were made in China.
"I think the two-battery version may be an improved design by the company," said Dr. Gao. "I don't understand why in the market, there are still these two different versions."
Fisher-Price refused to acknowledge any modifications to the Soothe & Glow Seahorse, and told the CALL7 Investigators the company has no plans to recall it. The company also refused to answer questions about where in China the toy was made, or about how it determines a recall is necessary, instead releasing this written statement:
"The Soothe & Glow Seahorse has been a hugely popular item since its introduction in 2008. We’ve received calls from a very small percentage of consumers who have experienced an issue with this product. We completely understand some consumers have concerns, which we’re taking seriously and working to address as effectively as possible.
We want to reassure everyone that the Seahorse is safe and we hope the following information will help put consumers’ minds at ease.
AA batteries have limited energy that depletes quickly. In the rare instance that a portion of the battery compartment is reported to have heated up, which we realize can be concerning to parents, it is brief and does not involve any other part of the toy beyond the battery compartment.
We value consumers’ trust and want to assure them that we would never do anything that compromises children’s safety.
If consumers have any questions regarding the Soothe & Glow Seahorse product or if they’ve experienced an issue, we encourage them to call our consumer services team at 888.253.4303, Mon. -Fri., 9 a.m. - 6 p.m. We’re ready to listen and help."
Burdick said that answer leaves her wondering how safe her children's Fisher-Price toys really are.
"It sounds like maybe they are trying to fix it, but not actually take care of the people that already have them," she said. "I don't know why they're waiting for someone to get hurt."
The CALL7 Investigators asked the Consumer Product Safety Commission about the criteria it uses to determine the need for a recall -- and about a company's responsibility to notify the CPSC about defective products.
The CPSC said a company is required to report any complaints about products that represent a "substantial hazard" to the public. But it's the companies that decide what qualifies as "substantial."
To report a problem with the Soothe & Glow Seahorse or any other product, and to research complaints and recalls, go to SaferProducts.gov.
If you have a news tip or follow-up to this story, e-mail Keli Rabon. You can also connect with me on Facebook or through Twitter @KeliRabon.