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.
The danger from lead is what happens inside the body -- particularly the body of a child, which absorbs far more of the lead he or she is exposed to than an adult's. The effects of lead are silent at the time of exposure but, in the long term, lead has been linked to learning disabilities, behavioral problems, malformed bones and slow growth. Very high levels can cause seizures and even death.
Lead itself is essentially undetectable by most parents. The way most people find out about dangers in their home is when their child's blood is tested at age 1 or 2. When those levels are elevated, only then do parents realize there is a problem somewhere in their homes -- and possibly in the toy box.
"Unfortunately, usually they are only discovered after a child has been poisoned," said Lynn Goldman, a professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and a former Environmental Protection Agency official.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a blood lead level of 10 micrograms per deciliter is considered elevated and will cause health officials to spring into action. Some states are looking into changing the level of concern to 5 micrograms per deciliter. But both the CDC and the EPA have said that no level of lead in the blood is safe.
The state of Vermont is looking into banning lead completely from children's products. Sen. Barack Obama, an Illinois Democrat, introduced a bill in May that would prohibit "more than trace amounts" of lead from toys, though the bill has thus far stalled.
Lanphear said a study he published last year showed that children older than 4 with lead levels as low as 2 micrograms per deciliter had a four-fold risk of having attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder as compared to children older than 4 with lead levels less than 1 microgram per deciliter.
"The overall impact can be quite profound," he said.
Children who are at the greatest risk from lead in toys are infants and toddlers who have older siblings, Goldman said. Those little ones often pick up toys designed for older kids and put them in their mouths, often taking off tiny chips of paint in the process.
"They want to taste everything, and that's normal," she said.
When a child's blood test comes back with an elevated lead level, Maryland officials will come to that child's home with an X-ray fluorescence (XRF) machine, which can show where the lead is. Rebecca Daniels, a former lead investigator for Baltimore County, said she would also test toys inside a poisoned child's home.
On a recent morning, she tested a bin of toys collected from a reporter's home. The machine was calibrated to determine when it found something that was above the standard, but it also detected lower levels of lead.
A Gordon train in the Thomas the Tank Engine family was negative, as were a Melissa and Doug fire engine, an Elmo tub toy and a Superman figurine.
But a few things did register -- an orange wooden puzzle piece, a new Transformers figurine, a painted wood train whistle, one Matchbox car (though not others). The toy with the highest reading was the Leap Frog Fridge Farm Magnetic Animal Set -- especially two pieces painted to resemble a horse and a duck. The two-year-old toy was chipped in many spots -- and the pieces could have ended up inside the 8-month-old who sucks on them.
"I would advise a parent to take it away," Daniels said. "I wouldn't let my child suck on these."
The XRF is a screening tool and later chemical tests done by Penniman & Browne Inc., a Mount Washington company, revealed there was no detectable level of lead in the toy -- too late to salvage the toy, which was stripped of all its paint to be properly tested.
It is nearly impossible for parents to know if the toys in their home have lead in them -- something that shouldn't be their job, the CPSC's Wolfson said. Tracking recalls and then discarding unsafe toys is a good start. But there are toys that wouldn't be subject to recall that still have measurable amounts of lead in them.
"As a mother, you need to be cautious," Mays said. "You need to arm yourself with information, and it's not always easy to come by."