Lead in toys: Keep on the lookout

Our investigation shows progress, but you need to be careful

Last reviewed: January 2009
Karen Rauen testing for lead
X-ray test
Karen Rauen, director of foods and sensory sciences, screens a glue-stick cap to check for lead content.
Ballerina's Magical Shoes necklace
The lead in the charm included with this book exceeded federal limits.

Store shelves are somewhat safer than they were a year ago, when lead in toys and other products cast a pall over holiday shopping and prompted recalls of almost 14 million items as varied as toys and slipcovers. But consumers can't let down their guard yet.

A Consumer Reports investigation found that some products that we identified in December 2007 as high in lead were largely gone from big retailers, but some were still available in a few stores and online. While tougher federal laws are about to take hold, suspect products are still showing up in unexpected places.

In total, more than 6 million products were recalled for lead in the first nine months of 2008. Consider the story behind just one of those recalls:

Judy Braiman, president of Empire State Consumer Project, a nonprofit advocacy group in Rochester, N.Y., gave a speech in November 2007 advising parents to buy books rather than toys to avoid the risk of lead exposure. Then she found a children's storybook that came with a metal necklace containing a ballet-shoes charm.

Braiman knew that inexpensive jewelry often contains lead, so she had the necklace tested at a certified lab. It turns out that the charm exceeded federal limits for lead on surface coatings. She notified the retailer, which filed its own report with the Consumer Product Safety Commission. Three months later, the CPSC announced that the book's publisher was recalling 500,000 of the necklaces, which had been on the market since 2003.

But Braiman says she is still frustrated. The agency did not respond to test results she submitted about other jewelry with lead content 77 times higher than the recalled ballet-shoes necklace. "It makes no sense to leave products on the market that are even more dangerous," she says. Julie Vallese, a CPSC spokeswoman, said the agency welcomes alerts from consumers but must conduct its own testing to determine whether recalls are warranted.

As Braiman's experience illustrates, tainted products are still out there, even if they are not on the federal government's recall list. "Regulators have not adequately screened toys or enforced protections, leaving the public in jeopardy," says Kathleen Burns, a toxicologist who worked with the Environmental Protection Agency on lead issues and has since founded Sciencecorps, a nonprofit environmental and occupational health analysis group.

Posted: December 2008 — Consumer Reports Magazine issue: January 2009