California Toy Testing Events Protect Kids from Lead

Ngoc Nguyen, New America Media, December 16, 2008

Editor's Note: A $1.5 million settlement from major toymakers funds
California environmental groups to test toys and other products for
high lead levels, helping protect children and educate ethnic
communities. Ngoc Nguyen is an editor for New America Media.

OAKLAND, Calif.-Heddy Garcia, the mother of two toddlers, was picking
up her kids from a Head Start program here Thursday, when teachers told
her about a free toy-testing event in the nearby shopping and transit
hub called Fruitvale Village.

"Thursday is sharing day, so the kids brought toys," she said.

Garcia's 5-year-old son David reluctantly handed over his big yellow
truck, while his mother pulled an apple-sized, plastic bumble bee from
the hands of her one-and-a-half-year-old daughter, Amcy.

Staff members at the Center for Environmental Health (CEH) checked the plastic toys for lead. The tests came up negative.

Josephina Cornejo, community development specialist for the Alameda
County Lead Poisoning Prevention Program, told Garcia that exposure to
lead "affects how children grow and learn." Cornejo said that speaking
to mostly monolingual Spanish-speaking mothers like Garcia at the event
made her realize how important continued education is in this
community, because "they are not informed."

Exposure to lead, a highly toxic metal, can have serious health effects
in adults and children. Children with high blood-lead levels can suffer
from damage to the brain and nervous system, behavior and learning
problems, such as hyperactivity, slowed growth, hearing problems and
headaches.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that there are
310,000 children with high levels of lead in their bodies. Cornejo said
the primary exposure to lead in children in the United States is
through lead-based paint, but lead is also showing up in many products,
such as toys, jewelry and zippers, much to the alarm of parents.

Garcia, whose children's toys checked out as lead-free, tucked the
items away in a pouch on a stroller with a look of relief. "I'm happy
to know the toys were tested and that there's no lead," she said in
Spanish. "I'm very concerned about [lead in the toys]. My kids put
everything in their mouths."

CEH's Research Director Caroline Cox said that lead poisoning is
preventable. "There's no reason why lead needs to be added to
children's products," she said. "It's important to offer parents the
opportunity to get toys checked if they want to."

Aside from Thursday's toy testing event, the Oakland-based CEH will
hold nine more throughout the East Bay, including neighborhoods with
large concentrations of communities of color. On Dec. 20, the city of
Los Angeles will hold similar toy testing and lead poisoning awareness
events.

The toy testing events throughout neighborhoods in the San Francisco
Bay Area and Los Angeles were funded through a $1.5 million settlement
this month by toymakers, including Mattel and its subsidiary
Fisher-Price, RC2, A&A Global Industries and Marvel Entertainment,
over lead-contaminated toys and children's products. The state Attorney
General's office and the Los Angeles City Attorney's office sued 17
toymakers and retailers last November.

Part of the settlement money goes to the state and a portion goes to
outreach projects like this one, Cox said. She said the holiday
shopping season is a good time to educate community members about
lead-tainted children's products.

Public outrage over recalls of lead-contaminated toys prompted several
retailers to pledge to test children's merchandise for lead and other
toxic chemicals. This effort has helped decrease the number of
lead-tainted toys on store shelves.

"The good news is that there's not nearly as much children's products
with lead out there. The bad news is there's still lead out there," Cox
said.

Last year, CEH bought and tested about 200 products from major
retailers and found that about 10 percent of the items contained lead.
This year, out of 200 products tested in the last month, the center
found about four children's items containing lead.

CEH checks toys and other children's products using an x-ray
fluorescence analyzer, which resembles a scanner gun used by retail
check-out clerks. The gun, which costs $35,000, can detect levels of
heavy metals such as lead, and displays a concentration in parts per
million. Several children's products tested Thursday, including
backpacks, toy baseball bats and purses, contained lead at levels as
much as three to four times higher than the new federal safety limit.

New federal standards on lead levels in products intended for children
12 years and under take effect in February 2009. Under the Consumer
Product Safety Improvement Act of 2008, Cox said, any children's
product sold in the United States after February cannot contain more
than 600 parts per million (ppm) of lead. By 2011, the rule would lower
the lead content level in children's products to 100 ppm.

The legislation was signed into law amid intense political pressure
after the recall of 45 million lead-laced toys last holiday season. The
regulations also ban the use of phthalates, a chemical used to make
plastic pliable, in children's products.

Not all retailers test their merchandise for lead, such as flea
markets, discount or dollar stores and mom-and-pop vendors. Lead
poisoning specialist Cornejo also advises against buying used
children's products, because it's hard for parents to know where the
items came from.

Lead poisoning is determined through a blood test. In California, a
person with blood-lead levels of 10 micrograms per decimeter or above
is considered to have lead poisoning. A blood-lead level of 40
micrograms per decimeter can trigger seizures in children. Today,
Cornejo said, health officials understand that there's "no safe level"
of lead exposure in children.

In adults, a high level of lead in the body causes reproductive
problems in men and women, high blood pressure and hypertension, nerve
disorders, memory and concentration problems, and muscle and joint
pain. Pregnant women also have cause for concern, because lead exposure
can harm the fetus, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection
Agency.

Thursday, Paw Boh and her friend were pushing strollers in the shopping
area when they were approached by staff of CEH, who asked if they
wanted to test their toddlers' backpacks. The women, who had just
bought Asian vegetables in an open-air market, looked a bit bewildered
by the question, but agreed to have the items tested. The backpack
belonging to Boh's friend's granddaughter contained no lead, but Boh's
son's backpack showed lead levels higher than federal safety standards.

Cornejo told Boh that CEH wanted to "buy" the backpack, with funds from
the toymakers' settlement with the state. They paid Boh $15 in cash –
the amount she said she paid for it – so the mother could buy a
lead-free backpack for her son. Her 4-year-old son, Mathew, the owner
of the lead-tainted Spiderman backpack, didn't want to give it up, but
eventually he let go and smiled after his mother told him he 'd be
getting a new one.

The Center for Environmental Health will hold toy testing clinics throughout the East Bay. For more information, go here.

In Los Angeles, the City Attorney's Office will hold a Lead Toy
Exchange at four locations throughout the city on Saturday, Dec. 20.
For more information, go here.

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