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Not all toys on the shelf are lead-free

on October 21, 2010

Sylvia Alvarez unloaded her bag of toys onto a table at a community center in Concord, pulling out a plastic trumpet and some other favorite toys of her son’s. She also brought a painted ceramic Virgin de Guadalupe lamp that her sister sent from Mexico.

Alvarez wanted the toys and the lamp to be tested for lead. Contra Costa Health Services hosted the testing event at the Monument First 5 Center earlier this week.

Like most toddlers, three-year-old Adan puts everything he plays with in his mouth, Alvarez said. It’s the most common way children get lead into their bodies, and the good news for Adan was that his toys tested safe for chewing.

The lamp, however, was another story.

Christine Cordero uses an X-Ray Fluorescence gun (XFR), one of the methods used to test for lead levels.

“Oh wow, whoa, the yellow is, wow,” spluttered Christine Cordero, who was testing the toys.

Cordero does outreach for the Center for Environmental Health, an Oakland public health nonprofit. She said the yellow paint on the back of the lamp had eight times the legal limit for lead.

The Consumer Product Safety Act set new federal standards for lead in 2008, and has markedly changed the way products are produced, said Christine Cox, a scientist with the Center for Environmental Health. “It’s actually hard to find toys with lead in them, which it wasn’t a few years ago,” she said.

Lead can still be found in paint, plastic toys, ceramic glazes and metal jewelry. It’s more common on objects made in other countries, or before 1978 when most paints and ceramic glazes were lead-based. Although lead has been found in every color, it’s often used to make reds and yellows brighter. Cox called lead “stunningly toxic” and said it’s particularly dangerous for children, because it accumulates in the bones and can stay in the blood for several weeks.

Federal law limits lead content in consumer products to 300 parts per million. California has a more stringent standard of 200 parts per million for lead in jewelry, including toy jewelry. In August 2011, the federal standard for lead levels will drop precipitously to 100 parts per million: a level that represents essentially the background lead in the environment.

An XRF bounces x-rays off lead and other metal atoms to gauge the amount of toxic metals in a product.

Richmond Confidential checked the website for toys that have tested unsafe for lead, and bought three items in Richmond-area stores to have tested.

The Totally Me! Dressy Rainbow Jewelry set comes with hundreds of plastic and glass beads in more than 35 colors. The sets are for sale for $12.99 at the Toys-R-Us Express in Hilltop Mall, and the package says, ‘Warning: contains lead.’

The only beads in the set that tested positive for lead were the black metallic beads, at 116 parts per million, and the blue metallic beads at 290 parts per million—well over the state limit.

Toys-R-Us spokeswoman Jennifer Albano said in an email that all the company’s products “are subject to rigorous third-party testing for a variety of potential safety concerns, including lead.”

“Our testing through Bureau Veritas, one of the world’s leading product testing facilities,” the email said, “has found that the beads in the Totally Me! Dressy Rainbow Jewelry tested well below the federal standard (300ppm) and the stricter California standard for lead in children’s jewelry (200 ppm). In fact, the majority of the beads in the set have limits so low that they are non-detectable in testing.”

The Center for Environmental Health’s Cox said it’s not uncommon for different testing methods to yield disparities such that one item registers both above and below the legal limit.

Cox also said that identical toys are not necessarily homogeneous. “Sometimes you have a situation where they’re making a product,” she said, “but at some point a batch of paint that had lead in it or plastic that had lead in it is used for a batch of the products.”

A plastic knight’s helmet purchased at the Dollar Tree in San Pablo also tested positive for lead. It came in at 120 parts per million.

The Dollar Tree could not be reached for comment.

About a hundred children per year test positive for risky levels of lead in their blood, said Joanne Genet, manager of the county’s Lead Poisoning Prevention Project. In the last ten years, more than 800 children in the county have had blood levels that triggered a home investigation to eliminate the sources of lead.  Of those, almost half lived in the Richmond/San Pablo area.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, lead exposure in children is linked to lower IQ and higher rates of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder. In adults, lead poisoning is linked with memory loss, dementia and increased risk of heart attack. At higher levels, lead exposure can cause kidney damage, anemia and muscle weakness.

To protect children from lead, the CDC recommends keeping children away from peeling paint or surfaces with lead-based paints, and washing children’s toys and hands regularly. Wet-mopping floors and wet-wiping windows can also pick up lead dust. Cordero suggests vigilance: limit the number of toys children have; buy toys made of natural materials like wood and cloth; and test favorite toys, old toys and jewelry with metal or painted surfaces.

Contra Costa County Health Services is hosting another toy-testing event on Saturday at La Clinica in Pittsburg. The Center for Environmental Health does drop-in toy testing between 12 p.m. and 6 p.m., Tuesday through Thursday.

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Richmond Confidential is an online news service produced by the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism for, and about, the people of Richmond, California. Our goal is to produce professional and engaging journalism that is useful for the citizens of the city.

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