Playing With Danger

Experts are now saying that there may be no safe level of lead in children's toys and products

September 13, 2007|By Stephanie Desmon | Stephanie Desmon,Sun reporter

An article in the Sept. 13 editions of The Sun about lead in children's toys said that an initial screening test performed at The Sun's request indicated that there might be lead in a LeapFrog Fridge Farm Magnetic Animal Set. That test, done with an X-ray fluorescence machine, is considered a screening test and is not definitive. When a more sophisticated chemical test was done, as the article reported, the toy was determined to be lead-free. The LeapFrog company says all such products it sells are designed and tested to exceed safety requirements.

For weeks, the public has fretted over imported toys that exceed federal lead standards, posing a risk to millions of children.

What's equally important, some experts say, is not whether the U.S. is properly enforcing the limits that are in place, but whether government standards are strict enough. They say public policy -- which still permits some lead in products like toys -- is not keeping up with medical literature, which now recognizes that there is no safe level of lead.

"We do know that there should be considerably lower levels [of lead] in consumer products, and the science bears that out," said Dr. Bruce Lanphear, professor of pediatrics at Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center and a leading lead researcher. "We're failing to protect the vast majority of children from the detrimental effects of lead exposure."

Lead is found in the environment, so getting to zero could be impossible. But lead is a cumulative poison and microscopic amounts here and there -- in water, in soil, in toys -- can add up. Experts say it's feasible to lower the permissible lead level in paint used for toys, which is 600 parts per million, a standard set nearly 30 years ago when the U.S. banned high levels of lead in paint and one that there have been few efforts to change.

"You've got to bring it as low as you possibly can," said Don Mays, senior director for product safety planning at Consumer Reports magazine. "They certainly could go lower on toys and anything that a child has access to."

"We think that it should be nothing," said Jessica Frohman, co-chair of the National Toxics Committee of the Sierra Club, which has successfully petitioned the Consumer Product Safety Commission to lower the acceptable level of lead in toy jewelry to 600 parts per million. The reason Frohman and her group chose 600 parts per million and didn't lobby for something they would consider safer? They knew 600 parts per million was doable -- and something was better than no standard at all, she said.

"Any movement toward eliminating lead in children's products is the right way to go," said CPSC spokesman Scott Wolfson. But changing the standard is complicated -- one that requires an act of Congress or a lengthy petitioning process to accomplish, he said.

Wolfson, meanwhile, said the risk to children is very small even under the current standard. At 600 parts per million, it is the equivalent of "an

ounce in a person who weighs 110 pounds," he said.

American manufacturers say foreign companies are the problem.

No lead is added to U.S. paints, and lead entering from the environment is extremely low at about 100 parts per million, said Stephen R. Sides, vice president for environmental health and international affairs for the National Paint & Coatings Association, which represents U.S. paint-makers. "It would not affect us in any way if that number [600 parts per million] were dropped down," Sides said.

Lead has long been a known hazard in the paint found on the walls of pre-1970s houses, typically in cities like Baltimore, where there is a large stock of deteriorating, older homes. The largest threat to children remains chipping lead paint in these houses. Large-scale efforts have been made to safely cover or remove lead so that children will not ingest it.

Statewide, the number of youngsters with lead poisoning dropped from 14,546 in 1993 to 1,274 last year. Still, there are new cases every year -- nearly 600 just in Baltimore this year.

With more and more recalls of name-brand toys like Fisher-Price and Thomas the Tank Engine, toys that are often found in suburban homes without an inherent lead problem, the issues that policymakers have spent a long time trying to eradicate could return.

The seminal article on childhood lead poisoning was written more than 100 years ago in Australia, where a doctor found widespread illness among children who ingested lead dust that had come off painted walls. In 1909, France and Belgium banned the use of lead in paint, and in 1921 there was an international treaty banning lead paint, said Lanphear. The U.S. did not sign it, after lobbying from the paint industry, he said.

It wasn't until 1978 that the federal standards on lead paint were set -- based on the science of the time.

Countries like China, where the recalled toys were produced, are still using lead paint.

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