Toy Box Roulette: Cleaning Up Toys After Finding Lead

Well, you are going to want to make sure that there isn't any lead dust present in and around your child's room and toy box.  The risk of lead dust from toys may be small, but  you might want some comfort.  Some studies have estimated that infants ingest 0.02 to 10 grams of dust per day, depending on their mouthing activities.  So cleaning up that fine dust is important.  How do you do that?  You need to wet wipe all exposed surfaces.  Start from the top, and work your way down.  Make sure you use a clean surface for each pass – you don't want to recontaminate as you go.  The easiest method is to use a spray cleaner and paper towels.  Don't reuse the paper towels (your inner environmentalist may cringe, but necessary).  Dispose of used paper towels.  You can wet wipe or wash toys, depending on the material.  Once you have wiped down the surfaces, vacuum with a HEPA equipped vacuum, preferably with a dirt sensor.  Vacuum from the farthest point, working towards the main door.  According to dust expert John Roberts, you need to make 16 passes over high traffic areas and 8 passes over all other areas.  This is time consuming, but will significantly reduce fine dust levels.  If you have hardwood floors, wet mop.  If you have a throw rug, vacuum in place so that you don't disperse dust by moving the rug outside. 

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LEAD: Why do we care about exposure to lead?

Why is a  baby’s exposure to lead is more significant than an adult’s exposure to lead?

  • First, children are more sensitive to the health effects of lead than adults.  
  • Second, children’s physiological uptake rates of lead are higher than adults (children absorb/retain 50% of the lead they ingrest, aduls absorb/retain 5% to 15%).  
  • Third, children engage in activities more likely to lead to lead exposure.

Lead poisoning poses the greatest threat to children under the age of six because their brains are still forming and they are more vulnerable than adults to lead.

The scary facts are that lead exposure may result in developmental disabilities and cognitive impairment, as measured by IQ tests (lowered IQ).  Other health effects include slowed growth, damage to the central nervous system, hypertension, impaired hearing acuity, impaired hemoglobin synthesis, and male reproductive impairment.  Lead exposure has been linked with aggression and attention problems, hyperactivity and impulsivity, which are the common behavioural problems of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

Unfortunately, lead poisoning may have no major symptoms.  In some cases, a toddler may have delayed speech.  A school age child may seem more aggressive, or may have trouble paying attention.  Symptoms may include headaches, appetite loss, impaired hearing, hyperactivity, irritability, and learning disabilities.  Acute lead poisoning is rare, but can cause vomiting, abdominal pain, diarrhea, weakness in the limbs, seizures, coma and death.  Unfortunately, a 4 year old boy died last year after ingesting a heart-shaped charm on Valentine’s Day that was a gift with a park of Reebok sneakers.

It takes a blood test to actually verify lead poisoning.  The current screening level set by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (“CDC”) for pediatric blood lead levels is 10 micrograms per deciliter of blood (10 ug/dL).  

But, there may be no safe lead blood level.  More than ten years ago, the National Academy of Sciences wrote that

“[t]here is growing evidence that even very small exposures to lead can produce subtle effects in humans [and] that future guidelines may drop below 10 µg/dL as the mechanisms of lead toxicity become better understood.” 

A recent study found that lead levels believed to be safe in children actually produce a severe impact on intellectual development.  According to a study reported in April 2003 in the New England Journal of Medicine and funded by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, pediatric blood levels of lead below the current federal and international guidelines of 10 ug/dL produced a large drop in IQ, of up to 7.4 points.  The researchers also discovered that the amount of impairment was more pronounced at lower levels of blood lead levels.  That is, IQ scores of children who had blood lead levels of 10 ug/dL were 7.4 points lower than for children with blood lead levels of 1 ug/dL, but an increase in lead blood levels from 10 to 30 ug/dL was only associated with a small additional decline in IQ.

A report from the Work Group of the Advisory Committee on Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention to the CDC concluded that the overall weight of available evidence supports the finding that blood lead levels below the supposed “safe” level have a negative impact on children’s cognitive development.  The Work Group found that the available research indicate that blood lead levels below 10 ug/dL impacts children’s health.  Recent research suggests that health effects can occur at blood lead levels as low as 2.5 ug/dL.  According to the CDC’s figures, almost 1 in 10 children have a blood lead level above 5 ug/dL.

The impact of lead on children’s development disproportionately affects minority children.  University of Wisconsin researchers found that while 9.3% of children in the overall population who are exposed to lead score below 80 IQ points, that number increases to 14.2% in African-American children.

It used to be thought that the impacts of lead disappeared or declined if the child’s exposure to lead was stopped or reduced.  Unfortunately, recent studies suggest that the effects are largely irreversible.  The recent research underscores the importance of preventing your baby’s exposure to lead.

LEAD: Could your child be going back to school with lead in her lunchbox?

Your child’s lunch box could contain lead, a highly toxic metal.  Lead is used to stabilize some polyvinyl chloride plastic (“PVC”).  PVC is used as a liner in some lunchboxes and soft lunchboxes may be made out of PVC.  As a result, your child could be exposed to lead. 


Lead is known to be harmful to children even in relatively small amounts and it can impair brain development and cause other behavioral and developmental problems.


Power Rangers Lunch BoxThe Center for Environmental Health (“CEH”), a nonprofit environmental organization, reported it found lead in the PVC plastic of several lunchboxes it tested in 2005.  Following the release of CEH’s findings, and the lawsuits it filed, several states issued recalls for soft insulated lunch boxes.  In its August 2006 magazine, Consumer Reports (“CR”) reported that a CR staffer visited two New York-area stores and found lunch boxes from the companies mentioned in a recall.  CR’s tests found that the boxes contained lead.  In lunch boxes tested by CR, the PVC plastic linings contained fairly high levels of lead, and CR’s tests confirmed that some of this lead can transfer in small amounts to hands and to unwrapped food stored inside.


CEH found the highest lead levels CEH found were in the lining of lunch boxes, where lead could come into direct contact with food.  This is consistent with the test results reported by CR.   As a result, children may be exposed to lead when they eat food that has been stored in the lunch boxes.  They may also be exposed as a result of handling the lunchboxes just before eating.


However, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission has issued a public statement asserting that PVC lunch boxes are safe.  The CPSC’s website reports that it found no accessible levels after testing 60 lunch boxes. 


But the CPSC’s results have been criticized.  According to documents the Associated Press obtained, two types of tests were performed.  The first involved cutting a chunk of vinyl from the lunchbox, dissolving it and then analyzing how much lead is in the solution.  The second involved swiping the surface and then determining how much lead has rubbed off.


The results of the first type of test, looking for the actual lead content of the vinyl, showed that 20 percent of the bags had more than 600 parts per million of lead, the federal safe level for paint and other coatings. The highest level was 9,600 ppm, more than 16 times the federal standard.


But the CPSC did not use those results.  Instead, the CPSC focused exclusively on how much lead came off a lunch box’s surface when swiped.  For the swipe tests, the results were lower, especially after the researchers changed their testing protocol. After a handful of tests, they increased the number of times they swiped each bag, again and again on the same spot, resulting in lower average results.


As reported by the Associated Press, an in-house e-mail from the director of the CPSC’s chemistry division explained that CPSC re-tested with the new protocol “which gave a lower average result than the prior report … ,” he wrote. “This shows … that the overall risk is lower than our original testing would have showed, as the amount of lead dislodgeable is mostly taken out with the first wipe and goes down with subsequent wipes.”


CPSC spokesperson Julie Vallese explained it this way: “The more you wipe, the less lead you actually find. With fewer wipes, we got a higher detection of lead presence. We thought more wipes was closer to reflecting how you would interact with your lunch box. It was more realistic.”


Using the lunch boxes should not result in a high enough exposure to cause severe lead poisoning.  However, the cumulative exposure, especially when coupled with the likely exposure to lead from many other sources, could result in the accumulation of lead in children’s bodies sufficient enough to cause problems. 


Smart Mama’s Simple Steps:


Replace any vinyl lunch boxes.  Consider replacing your child’s lunch box with a reusable nylon bag or some other material. 


Wash hands!  Don’t forget to remind your children to routinely wash their hands to reduce the transfer of germs but also to reduce their exposure to lead.

BPA: What are simple steps to reduce my baby’s exposure to BPA?

Updated May 9, 2008 

Simple Step #1:  Switch to a BPA-free bottle.  You are looking for a bottle that does not have any components that are made of polycarbonate plastic.  Try the list here

Simple Step #2:  Minimize leaching from polycarbonate plastic bottles.  If you can’t switch to BPA free bottles, then minimize leaching of BPA from polycarbonate baby bottles: 

  • Discard old, worn or scratched polycarbonate baby bottles or sippy cups.  Leaching occurs more readily from worn plastic.
  • Heat food and drinks outside of the plastic and transfer when cool enough to eat or drink.  Heat appears to increase the rate of leaching.
  • Wash bottles and sippy cups by hand with a mild dishwashing soap, such as castile soap, instead of a harsh detergent or placing them in the dishwasher

Simple Step #3Check your infant formula.  The packaging for infant formulas contains BPA, and the BPA leaches into the formula.  Canned prepared liquid infant formulas have the highest rate of leaching.  If you are using prepared liquid infant formula, choose the ready-to-feed formula from Similac in quart-size plastic containers.  These are free of BPA.  If you are using powdered infant formula, the single serving powder packets by Enfamil and Similac are BPA-free.  This option can get expensive, however.  So, choose an infant formula with the smallest amount of surface area coated with BPA on the interior of the can.  According to information retrieved from the manufacturers’ websites, calls to customer service, and the letters submitted to the Congressional Committee investigating BPA in infant formula, Nature’s One infant powdered formula, Baby’s Only organic, only has the easy open metal top coated with a resin containing BPA.  The Earth’s Best also only has the top lined with BPA (although Earth’s Best apparently gave the EWG different information). 

Simple Step #4:  Choose sippy cups and other food storage and serving pieces that are not made of polycarbonate plastic. 

Simple Step #5:  Choose soups, milk and soy milk packaged in cardboard “brick” cartons (BPA is used in a resin to line cans) 

Simple Step #6:  Choose fresh, frozen, dried or glass jarred over canned foods.  Canned food may be the major source of exposure for most people.  The Environmental Working Group released a report in March 2007 that reported results of its testing of certain canned foods.  The study found that: 

  • Cans of chicken soup, infant formula, and ravioli had the highest BPA levels.
  • 1 in 3 cans of infant formula had BPA levels “200 times the government’s traditional safe level of exposure for industrial chemicals.”
  • Overall, 1 in 10 cans tested had high levels of BPA.

BPA: What is Bisphenol A doing in baby bottles and why is it a problem?

You may have read news reports about the potential dangers of certain plastic baby bottles.  The concern stems from Bisphenol A, which is present in polycarbonate plastic.  Many baby bottles are made from polycarbonate plastic, as are countless other consumer items.  Polycarbonate plastic is widely used plastic.  It is clear, lightweight, heat resistant, and shatter resistant.  It is used in a wide variety of applications, many of them involving direct contact with foods and beverages, including baby bottles, reusable sports water bottles, food storage containers, and tableware.  


Plastics are like very long trains made up of identical railroad cars.  The technical explanation is that most plastics are polymers, or are long molecules (the very long train) made up of many repetitions of a basic molecule called the monomer (the railroad car).  Bisphenol A is the basic monomer of polycarbonate plastic.  Bisphenol A (BPA) is a synthetic chemical compound used in a wide range of consumer products.  It has found its way into the bodies of most of us.  A study in the US found that 95% of people tested had been exposed to BPA.


Bottle FeedingUnder certain conditions, BPA leaches out of the polycarbonate and into the food or drink.  What are those conditions?  Well, it is uncertain, but it appears that leaching occurs with everyday use, and is much higher when the bottles are scratched or worn.  It also appears that leaching is much worse when the bottles are heated.


Exposure to BPA may cause health effects.  The safety of BPA is being hotly debated right now.  The U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the plastic industry maintain the BPA is safe at the levels to which most consumers are exposed.


However, some research scientists have been increasingly warning consumers about potential dangers.  BPA has been shown to be an endocrine disruptor and to simulate the action of the human hormone estrogen.  Early life exposure may cause stimulate certain cancers and may cause genetic damage.


The National Toxicology Program (NTP) Center for the Evaluation of Risks to Human Reproduction convened an expert panel to evaluate BPA.  The Panel’s final report is scheduled to be published in Fall 2007, but the draft meeting summary identifies the following conclusions:


For pregnant women & fetuses:




  • Some concern the exposure to BPA in utero causes neural and behavioral effects


  • Minimal concern that exposure to BPA in utero causes effects on the prostrate and accelerations in puberty


  • Negligible concern that exposure to BPA in utero produces birth defects and malformations

For infants & children:



  • Some concern that exposure to BPA causes neural and behavioral effects

  • Minimal concern that exposure to BPA potentially causes accelerations in puberty

For adults:




  • Negligible concern for adverse reproductive effects following exposures in general population


  • Minimal concern for highly exposed subgroups (e.g., occupational exposures)

Concern is rated as follows:  negligible, minimal, some, concern and severe.

Part of the problem is that there have been no human studies of BPA exposure.  More than 150 studies have found health effects in animals exposed to low doses.  However, scientists have reached different conclusions about whether BPA is safe in part because of metabolic differences between mice and humans and uncertainty in the amounts to which people are actually exposed.  Japan and the European Union’s Food Safety Authority recently reaffirmed BPA’s safety, criticizing the methodology of rodent/BPA studies as unreliable.  That’s really the root of the difference – these scientists haven’t agreed on how to translate the animal studies into human effects.


The Panel’s conclusions have been criticized by other leading experts.  In a consensus statement published in Reproductive Toxicology, a group of 38 scientists, including 4 from federal health agencies, concluded that people are exposed to levels of BPA exceeding those levels that harm lab animals, and that infants and fetuses are the most vulnerable.  This group of scientists reached these conclusions after reviewing about 700 studies.  Jerrold Heindel, a scientist with the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences who organized a meeting last fall to begin drafting the statement, said even though there have been no human studies of BPA, there is now so much animal data that the 38 experts believe that human damage is likely.  “We know what doses the animals were given, and when we look at humans, we see blood levels within that range or actually higher, which is a cause of concern and should stimulate more human research,” he said.


In the statement, the 38 scientists say they are confident that BPA, which mimics the female hormone estrogen, alters cells to switch genes on and off, programming a fetus or child for reproductive disorders later in life, and that the levels that harm lab animals “are well within the range of … BPA levels observed in human fetal blood.”


They concluded that “early life exposure … may result in persistent adverse effects in humans.”

Are there any toys NOT made in China? Are there any safe toys?

The Los Angeles Times reported on August 31, 2007 that 58% of American consumers are “not at all” or “not too much” confident that Chinese–made products they buy are safe.  More compelling is that a study by eBeanstalk found that 30% of moms surveyed said that they will not buy any goods manufactured in China. 

Safety standards do exist for toys imported into the U.S.  Under federal law, total lead in paints and other coatings used on toys cannot exceed 600 parts per million (ppm) total lead.  But, as is clear from the recent recalls, toys with coatings with higher lead concentrations are making their way onto toy shelves. 

Also, lead may be present in toys made with polyvinyl chloride (PVC) plastic.  Lead is sometimes used as a stabilizer in PVC (without a metallic salt such as lead compounds, PVC would break down and lose its strength).  Lead can migrate to the surface and be picked up by children, especially those that engage in mouthing activities (putting their hands or any objects into their mouths).

So, what can a parent do?  It is hard to know what to do.  You would expect that the toys on the shelves would be safe.  But, as is abundantly clear, some of them are not.

Now that holiday season is just around the corner, are there any toys NOT made in China?  Yes.  There are some options out there.  A few are listed here, and I’ll add more.  With very limited exceptions, Playmobil of Germany is not manufactured in China.  The exceptions – a few electronics part, like the flashing police light.  (Although Playmobil did have a recall for lead paint in 1982 with parts made by an American contractor).

Less than 3% of Lego's production comes from China.  

What about some other alternatives?  For a variety of toys, try ImagiPlay, Nova Natural Toys & Crafts or Natural Pod.  For tea sets, sand play sets, and cookware and dining sets, try the bioplastic (yes, they are made of corn!) toys at Green Toys.  For wood trains, try Whittle Shortline Railroad  advertises itself as using lead free paints.  As a bonus, its toy trains are compatible with Thomas™ and Brio©.   Oompa toys is a great source for a variety European made toys.   The website eBeanstalk advertises that all of its learning toys adhere to or exceed American and European safety standards.

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Blood lead levels – what is safe?

The question facing parents is whether their children are at risk.  Unfortunately, despite regulatory efforts and successful bans of lead paint and lead as a gasoline additive, lead remains a preventable childhood poisoning.  Don’t get me wrong – children’s exposure to lead has been significantly reduced.  Nonetheless, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control’s recent figures indicate that 1 out of every 10 children in the United States has a blood lead level greater 5 micrograms (ug)/deciliter (dL).  Now, this is below the current International and federal standard of 10 ug/dL, but that standard has been questioned.  Recent research, including a five year study published in The New England Journal of Medicine on April 17, 2007, found that most of the damage to a child’s intellectual functioning, measured by IQ testing, occurred at blood lead level concentrations below 10 ug/dL.  A report from the Work Group of the Advisory Committee on Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention to the Centers for Disease Control concluded that the overall weight of available evidence supports the finding that blood lead levels below the supposed “safe” level of 10 ug/dL have a negative impact on children’s cognitive development.  The recent research suggests that health effects can occur at blood lead levels as low as 2.5 ug/dL.  Next blog will look at sources of lead in the home. 

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Lead Levels Below Federal Guidelines Affect Children’s Cognitive Development

Those at greatest risk of health effects associated with lead exposure are the most vulnerable – fetuses and children under the age of six.  They are particularly at risk because their brains and central nervous systems are still forming.  Lead is a powerful neurotoxin that interferes with the development of these systems.

More than ten years ago, the National Academy of Sciences concluded that “[t]here is growing evidence that even very small exposures to lead can produce subtle effects in humans.”  A study reported in the April 2003 New England Journal of Medicine and funded by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (“NIEHS”) found that blood lead levels below 10 ug/dL produce a significant decrease in IQ.  Importantly, the researchers discovered that the amount of impairment was more pronounced at lower levels.  IQ scores of children who had blood lead levels of 10 ug/dL were 7.4 points lower than for children with levels of 1 ug/dL.  But, an increase in lead blood levels from 10 to 30 ug/dL was only associated with a small additional decline in IQ. 

A report from the Work Group of the Advisory Committee on Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention to the CDC concluded that the overall weight of available evidence supports the finding that blood lead levels below the supposed “safe” level have a negative impact on children’s cognitive development.

Blood lead levels below 10 ug/dL may also impact children’s health.  Few studies have directly analyzed health effects and blood lead levels below 10 ug/dL.  However, the Work Group found that the available research indicate that blood lead levels below 10 ug/dL impacts children’s health.  Recent research suggests that health effects can occur at blood lead levels as low as 2.5 ug/dL. 

According to the CDC’s figures, almost 1 in 10 children have a blood lead level above 5 ug/dL.  Approximately 11 million children between the ages of 1 and 5, about fifty four percent (54%) of that age group, had blood lead levels of 2.5 ug/dL or greater between 1992 and 1994. 

The most recent studies underscore the importance of preventing children’s exposure to lead.  Lead poisoning symptoms may be subtle and may be take time to appear.  They can be confused with other problems.  Common symptoms include stomach aches and headaches, which may be confused with the flu.  Other symptoms include irritability, appetite loss, impaired hearing, hyperactivity, and learning disabilities.  Lead exposure can lead to slowed growth and damage to the brain and nervous system.

Acute lead poisoning is rare, but can cause vomiting, abdominal pain, diarrhea, weakness in the limbs, seizures, coma and death. 

The only way to determine whether a child has a lead-related problem is to have the child tested.