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.

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