Getting lead out – safe lead levels in children’s toys & the dirty history of lead in paint

Is there a safe level of lead in children’s toys?  Perhaps not.  Recent studies suggest that the current standard for blood lead levels of 10 micrograms per deciliter of blood is too high.  The CDC and the EPA have both issue statements that no level of lead in the blood is safe, although the standard has not yet been lowered. 

Dr. Bruce Lanphear, Professor of Pediatrics at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center said in an interview reported in the Baltimore Sun that 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.  Other studies have shown similar results.  For example, one study reported in the New England Journal of Medicine showed a significant drop in IQ at levels below 10 ug/dL. 

Blood lead levels correspond with the levels of lead in the individual’s environment.  If no blood lead level is safe, then lead should be eliminated as much as possible from all sources.  Lead in children’s toys isn’t the only source of lead.  Lead in our houses is probably the biggest source of exposure.  The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development estimates that 25% of our nation’s housing contains significant lead based paint hazards. 

What is alarming is that the US didn’t regulate lead in paint until 1978 but the hazards of lead in paint were known much earlier.  In 1904, J. Lockhart Gibson was one of the first English-speaking authors to link directly lead based paint to childhood lead poisoning.  In 1905, he wrote, “The use of lead paint within the reach of children should be prohibited by law.”  Others made similar links in published literature, including 2 Americans in 1914.  Kenneth Blackfan and Henry Thomas reported a boy who died of lead poisoning after ingesting leaded paint on his crib railing.  With this information, other countries banned or restricted lead in residential paints beginning in 1909 with France, Belgium and Austria to Great Britain, Sweden and Belgium in 1926, among many others. 

The US didn’t act, even in the face of mounting evidence, because of the strength of lobbying by the lead paint industry.  In fact, the lead paint industry’s advertising in the first half of the 20th century aggressively promoted lead paint for interior use, and focused on children.  Some of the advertising pictures are just frightening – several children’s items and the slogan “lead takes part in many games.”  The lead paint industry aggressively challenged the scientific reports, and dismissed the scientific evidence.  So we are left with a toxic legacy. 

Okay, so this isn’t information you can use to reduce exposure.  And that is what this website is supposed to be about.  But I’ve been following the progress of AB 1108, a bill in California that would ban/limit phthalates in products intended for use by children under the age of 3 years.  The bill has been passed out of the California Legislature and is awaiting the Governor’s signature, but he has threatened to veto it.  The lobby against the bill cites scientific surveys that show how safe phthalates are . . .and I keep thinking of the history about lead in paint.

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