Getting the Lead Out

By Erica Etelson
Web Exclusive – September 15, 2008

boys playing with natural toysIt looked innocent enough—a heart-shaped silver charm bracelet with Reebok engraved on it. But two days after four-year-old Jarnell Brown of Minneapolis accidentally swallowed the heart, he died. The charm wasn’t silver—it was lead. Blood tests revealed he had enough lead in his system to kill him twice over. A month later, in March of 2006, Reebok announced the recall of all 300,000 charm bracelets it had given away with the purchase of its shoes.

The Reebok bracelet recall was one of 12 recalls of children’s products found to contain lead in 2006. The following year, the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) issued 90 recalls affecting more than 14 million children’s products containing lead. One of the biggest recalls involved the cultishly popular Thomas and Friends trains and accessories; in June of 2007, the RC2 Corporation recalled 1.5 million lead-painted cabooses, coal cars, and coaches manufactured at factories in China. Two months later came Fisher-Price’s $30 million recall of nearly a million plastic Sesame Street, Dora, and Sponge Bob toys decorated with lead paint. Dora and Elmo are in good company—Barbie, Curious George, and Winnie-the-Pooh have all been jettisoned from toy shelves in the past year.

Lead, a neurotoxin known for its harmful effects on young children, has been banned from paint and gasoline since the 1970s. But until recently, regulators have largely overlooked the presence of lead in children’s toys, jewelry, vinyl lunchboxes, and bibs.

Lead-painted toys are particularly hazardous for very young children who tend to gnaw on anything in sight. But costume jewelry is of even greater concern, says CPSC spokesperson Ed Kang. Children can get exposed to lead by sucking on, swallowing, or wearing cheap metal jewelry with embedded lead and a non-lead veneer.

Poison control centers receive more than 80,000 calls a year regarding children under the age of six who have swallowed objects. Ingestion dangers aside, children who simply wear the jewelry can absorb lead through their skin. According to Mary Burns, community project director for the Lead Safe Housing Initiative of Lead Safe Illinois, the coating on lead-based jewelry can chip or wear off, allowing the child’s skin to come in direct contact with the lead. Sucking on a piece of metal jewelry hastens the deterioration of the coating. And if a child touches a piece of lead-based jewelry whose plating has worn off and then puts his hand in his mouth, he can ingest significant amounts of lead.

Made in China

According to the Toy Industries Association (TIA), 80 percent of toys sold in the US are imported from China. Toys containing lead paint, like the Thomas trains, are not legally allowed to enter US borders, but lax enforcement has permitted the importation of eight brands of Chinese-made, lead-contaminated toys so far this year.

TIA vice president Joan Lawrence suspects that some Chinese toy factories unknowingly use lead paint provided by outside suppliers. She says the TIA plans to instruct factory managers to test all batches of paint the factory receives and to reject any containing lead. It’s a tall order: There are approximately 5,000 factories in China licensed to export toys, and Chinese safety standards lag far behind those in the United States.

Lead-tainted jewelry is an even bigger menace than toys, with almost seven million items subject to recall in 2007. One of the CPSC’s recalls pertained to jewelry made in India; all the rest of the contaminated jewelry was from China. An official in China’s Administration of Quality Supervision was quoted in USA Today in June of last year as saying that limiting the lead content in children’s jewelry is unnecessary because the small amount of lead that could seep out would “do little harm for children.” In the wake of the Fisher-Price recall, Chinese officials struck a more conciliatory tone, stating on their official website their desire to cooperate with the US on product safety.

The spate of Chinese-made jewelry recalls comes at a time when US consumers have grown wary of a wide array of adulterated and unsafe Chinese imports, from toothpaste to tires to pet food. “Manufacturers go to China because of cost-savings, and safety and quality are getting sacrificed,” says Rachel Weintraub, senior counsel for the Consumer Federation of America. Weintraub says Chinese factories do not conduct proper testing of the products they export.

Given China’s apparent lack of concern about children’s lead exposure, Dr. Randall Neustaedter, a pediatric acupuncturist and homeopath in Redwood City, California, advises, “Parents should view the label “Made in China’ as a warning.”

Lead Poisoning

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) estimates that 310,000 American children between the ages of one and five have elevated blood levels (more than ten milligrams of lead per deciliter of blood). According to the National Safety Council (NSC), high blood lead levels can cause kidney damage, mental retardation, and death. Even low levels of lead exposure can result in learning disabilities, behavioral problems, stunted growth, and hearing impairment. “There is no such thing as a ‘safe’ level of lead in a child’s blood,” says Kristin Martstiller of the NSC.

Lead builds up in the blood, making repeated or chronic exposure more dangerous than a one-time exposure. Children who show symptoms of lead poisoning–such as vomiting, headache, sluggishness and learning difficulties–should be tested.

Closing the Legal Loopholes

Under federal law, children’s products containing lead can be sold as long as the lead is not “accessible”. This loophole allows manufacturers to sell jewelry made out of lead and plated with another substance so that the lead is not on the surface.

In 2006, Illinois became the first state to ban all children’s products with more than trace amounts of lead. California followed suit with a law banning the sale of jewelry marketed to children containing more than six percent lead by weight. (Effective in 2009, the maximum will be two percent lead by weight). The city of Baltimore has also taken action to prevent local retailers from selling jewelry and barrettes found to have lead.

In April of last year, presidential hopeful Barack Obama (D-IL) introduced the Lead Free Toys Act (S. 1306), which would ban all children’s products marketed to children under the age of six that contain more than trace amounts of lead. The CPSC is also in the process of adopting new regulations modeled on the California law, but because the agency currently lacks a Chair (and may not have one until President Bush’s successor appoints one), it cannot finalize them.

Burns criticizes existing and pending regulations that apply only to jewelry marketed to children under the age of six. “If a twelve-year-old girl has a lead-tainted necklace, it can get into the hands of a younger sibling who may then suck on or swallow it,” Burns points out. That’s why the Illinois law applies to lead-based products across the board, not just to toys and jewelry targeted toward a certain age group.

In 2006, the Center for Environmental Health in Oakland and the California Attorney General negotiated a settlement with 71 companies that sell children’s costume jewelry. These retailers, including giants like Toys “R” Us, Wal-Mart, and Target, agreed to stop selling lead-tainted children’s jewelry as of September 1, 2007. Because California is such a big market, as a matter of business practicality, the ban will take effect in all of the retailers’ outlets nationwide.

The settlement goes a long way toward protecting children from lead-tainted jewelry. But millions of pieces of cheap metal jewelry are still sold in dollar stores and vending machines whose owners are not subject to this agreement.

Parental Enforcement

Clearly, awareness of the potential dangers of Chinese toy and jewelry imports is increasing, but there are still millions of lead-laden charm bracelets, mood rings, and coal tenders lying around the living rooms of America. Stricter laws do not guarantee that children will be protected from dangerous products, because the sheer volume of toys and jewelry entering the United States makes safety regulations difficult to enforce.

Kang says the CPSC is unable to routinely test imports, but will do so if it suspects a violation of federal law. With a nationwide staff at an all-time low of 400, the CPSC can only test products if someone—usually the manufacturer or a consumer—reports a problem. Weintraub calls CPSC port surveillance “dismal” and says the agency needs a substantially bigger budget to carry out its mission of protecting consumers from dangerous products.

In July of last year, Senators Durbin (D-IL) and Nelson (D-FL) introduced the Children’s Product Safety Act (S. 1833) which would require independent testing and certification of the safety of all goods for children under the age of six. Durbin is also calling for increased funding for the CPSC so that it can hire more inspectors and compliance staff. Neither Durbin’s nor Obama’s bill has passed.

In the meantime, the onus is on parents to scan parenting magazines for recall alerts and to regularly check the CPSC website. The CPSC advises parents not to rely on home test kits because they often yield inaccurate results. Your best bet is to avoid metal jewelry altogether and buy toys from environmentally-conscious vendors who are committed to providing safe and healthy products made by like-minded manufacturers.