YONKERS, NY — Lead hazards in consumer products aren’t limited to the millions of toys recalled so far this year, according to test results and a four-month investigation published in the December issue of Consumer Reports magazine.
Consumer Reports lab tests detected lead at widely varying levels in samples of dishware, jewelry, glue stick caps, vinyl backpacks, children’s ceramic tea sets, and other toys and items not on any federal recall list.
Additionally, the independent, nonprofit, testing organization found samples of a Fisher-Price blood pressure cuff that is part of a toy medical kit that had surface lead in worrisome amounts. Consumer Reports advises parents to remove this toy from use.
The Consumer Reports investigation also notes that for children, recent studies suggest development problems can occur at blood lead levels below what the government now considers elevated. And recent studies indicate that for older Americans, a portion of memory loss and other neurocognitive problems associated with “normal” aging might be linked to lifetime doses of lead. Also, according to a recent poll by the Consumer Reports National Research Center, 89 percent of consumers are aware of Government recalls on toys containing lead. Among those aware of the recalls, 36 percent of consumers say they will be buying fewer toys this holiday season and 70 percent say they will be checking product labels. According to the poll, 30 percent do not intend to buy Chinese toys at all. In addition to blaming the toy manufacturers (84%), consumers also hold accountable the U.S. government or regulators (62%), the Chinese Government (57%) and toy retailers (38%).
Consumer Reports Test Findings
Consumer Reports screened products from stores and consumers’ homes in the New York metropolitan area using home lead testing kits and an x-ray fluorescence analyzer. Testers focused on products made with materials more likely to contain lead, such as brightly painted items, on which lead is often used as an inexpensive pigment. Special attention was paid to children’s products.
Items that screened positive underwent further testing in Consumer Reports labs and in an outside lab to measure total lead – the amount on the surface as well as embedded.
Consumer Reports tests found high total lead levels in three new samples of a red toy blood pressure cuff from classic Fisher-Price Medical Kits purchased in the New York area and three samples from the homes of employees of Consumers Union, the nonprofit publisher of Consumer Reports. Tests indicated the highest concentration of total lead, more than 10,000 parts per million, in a cuff that a child had regularly played with for the past two years.
Consumers Union, nonprofit publisher of Consumer Reports, alerted Fisher-Price and asked the Consumer Products Safety Commission to investigate this product based on safety concerns. Other plastic children’s products Consumer Reports tested had high levels of total lead content, although tests indicated that negligible amounts would be accessible to children through touching or mouthing new items. Those products included orange caps from seven Elmer’s Glue Sticks with designs from “Dora the Explorer,” “Go, Diego, Go!” and “SpongeBob SquarePants,” and three Jordan Kids’ backpacks shaped like ducks.
Consumer Reports notes that there is no federal standard for lead in plastics, but the amount of lead detected in the glue stick caps was more than three times the 600 parts per million allowable for paint in the U.S. Consumers who own any of those items are advised to remove them from use. Additionally, Consumer Reports notes that experience with lead-tainted vinyl miniblinds in recent years suggests that exposure to sunlight and heat can cause some plastic items to release embedded lead over time. It’s not known how the products Consumer Reports tested will hold up over time.
Home Lead-Testing Kits
Consumer Reports recently tested five home lead-testing kits and concluded that three of the five kits tested were useful though limited screening tools for consumers concerned about lead levels in the products in their homes.
CR found that three of the five lead test kits, Homax Lead Check, Lead Check Household Lead Test Kit and Lead Inspector, detected surface or accessible lead but don’t detect lead embedded below the surface. Consumer Reports advises parents that if an item tests positive for lead it should be removed from use. To ascertain exact lead levels, items must be screened professionally.
In Consumer Reports tests, the Homax Lead Check ($8); and the Lead Check Household Lead Test Kit ($18.45) were the easiest to use and identified accessible lead in toys, ceramic dishware, and vinyl or plastic. These two kits consist of cigarette-shaped swabs, made by the same company, that turn pink when they detect lead. If lead concentrations are low, these swabs can take up to 2 hours to change color, but in CR’s tests, high concentrations produced immediate results. The eight-swab Lead Check Household Lead Test Kit pack is a better bargain than the Homax two-swab pack. Its packaging was also less susceptible to being crushed.
“Manufacturers and the government need to strengthen their efforts to eliminate lead in the marketplace,” said Consumer Reports Senior Director for Product Safety, Donald Mays. “In the meantime, consumers need a way to assess the safety of products in their homes, and lead test kits are a useful though limited screening tool.”
Consumer Reports notes that the Lead Inspector ($13) test kit might be superior for pink or red items, because if those shades of paint bled onto a Lead Check swab, it might falsely appear to be positive. Swabs turn yellow, brown, gray, or black if lead is detected. It can take up to 10 minutes for a color change to occur at low lead levels. The kit, with eight tests, identified accessible lead and might be a good choice for painted metal jewelry. CR recommends having good ventilation and wearing gloves to protect skin from chemicals.
In Consumer Reports tests, the First Alert ($13) kit indicated some false negatives for accessible lead and the Pro-Lab Lead Surface ($10) test kit was less sensitive and more difficult to use than the others.
Advice for Consumers
Given lead’s potential for harm, Consumers Union, the independent, nonprofit publisher of Consumer Reports, believes that manufacturers should eliminate its use or reduce it to the smallest trace amounts. But for consumers who are looking to minimize their lead risks, Consumer Reports advises the following:
Reduce lead exposure in the home – Consumers who live in pre-1978 housing should
evaluate lead risks in their home, whether or not they have children. The main concerns
are deteriorating paint, dust, soil, and water.
Have children tested for lead – The Environmental Protection Agency recommends all
children be tested at ages 1 and 2. Some pediatricians also recommend testing at annual
checkups under age 6.
Check recall lists – Consumers should go to www.cpsc.gov for photos and descriptions
of toys and other products recalled due to lead contamination.
Consume adequate calcium and iron – People whose diets don’t contain sufficient
amounts absorb more lead.
Lauren Hackett (914) 378-2561
Douglas Love (914) 378-2437
© Consumers Union 2007. The material above is intended for legitimate news entities only; it may not be used for commercial or promotional purposes. Consumer Reports® is published by Consumers Union, an expert, independent nonprofit organization whose mission is to work for a fair, just, and safe marketplace for all consumers and to empower consumers to protect themselves. To achieve this mission, we test, inform, and protect. To maintain our independence and impartiality, Consumers Union accepts no outside advertising, no free test samples, and has no agenda other than the interests of consumers. Consumers Union supports itself through the sale of our information products and services, individual contributions, and a few noncommercial grants.