Lead in toys: Keep on the lookout

Our investigation shows progress, but you need to be careful

Last updated: January 2009

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.

Signs of improvement

A new federal law strongly supported by Consumers Union, the nonprofit publisher of Consumer Reports, imposes tougher limits for lead in all products primarily intended for children age 12 and younger, who are especially vulnerable to the metal's toxic effects on the brain and other organs. Starting in February 2009, total lead content in any children's product cannot exceed 600 parts per million. That limit drops to 300 ppm six months later.

Previously, federal limits of 600 ppm applied only to paint or surface coatings on products. That created a regulatory loophole allowing the sale of vinyl, metal, and plastic products with worrisome amounts of lead. Among them were two that we identified in our December 2007 report: samples of red toy blood pressure cuffs sold in Fisher-Price Medical Kits and orange caps on Elmer's Glue Sticks with "Dora the Explorer," "Go, Diego, Go!" and "SpongeBob SquarePants" designs.

When we recently checked to see whether those products were still available, the results were encouraging. Our mystery shoppers searched online and at retailers in seven states and were able to purchase only four of the lead-tainted products: three kits with red blood pressure cuffs sold at a store in Arizona and one kit sold on eBay.

At a Wal-Mart in New Jersey, we discovered a red cuff too. But upon checkout scanning, the cashier told us it could not be processed for sale. The blue cuffs now in most of the medical kits our shoppers found tested negative for lead, as did the orange caps on Elmer's Glue designs, such as "Cars," "Disney Princess," "Hannah Montana," and "High School Musical."

Reactions from retailers

Some manufacturers and retailers say they have already taken steps to improve testing and quality before they are required by law to do so. Toys "R" Us requires that all products sent to its stores as of November 2008 must contain no more than 300 ppm total lead, even though the deadline for meeting that limit is not until August 2009, spokeswoman Kathleen Waugh says. And because of concerns about lead, Dollar Tree, which has stores in 48 states, has stopped buying jewelry from its suppliers, according to company spokesman Andrew Koneschusky.

After several lead recalls in 2007, Thomas the Tank Engine manufacturer RC2 created its own lab in China to test its products for lead and seven other heavy metals, including cadmium. "All of our retailers are requiring more testing and we're complying. Instead of just spot checking, we're checking every batch of wet paint before it is applied to products," says RC2's chief executive officer, Curt Stoelting.

When items are recalled, many end up in warehouses awaiting proper disposal. Stoelting says his company recovered 75 percent, or 1.3 million, of Thomas the Tank Engine items subject to lead recalls in 2007. They are locked up as RC2 works with the EPA on a disposal method.

But recovering such a high percentage is unusual. More typical are figures supplied by Target stores in September 2007 in response to a congressional inquiry about the fate of recalled toys, including 190,500 Kool Toyz Playsets pulled in November 2006. Almost a year after that recall, consumers had returned only 766 of the toys, which had up to 9,200 ppm of lead.

"Once bad products are out there, not many come back because you almost have to be in the right place at the right time to even hear about a recall," says Cara Smith, deputy chief of staff at the Illinois attorney general's office.

As a result, although stores might pull unsold items off the shelves, many other recalled products continue to be resold in thrift shops, at yard sales, and online at sites such as eBay and Craigslist.

In late September 2008, more than a year after Fisher-Price's Elmo's Guitar and Keyboard were recalled because of lead content, suspect items were offered for sale on Craigslist in Atlanta. EBay had several sellers' listings for Baby Einstein Discover & Play Color Blocks, which were recalled a year earlier. Listings didn't include model numbers, so buyers couldn't verify recalls.

"Highly publicized or recently announced recalls may be flagged by online auction sites before they're posted, but plenty of recalled products are still being listed," says Keri Brown Kirschman, a University of Dayton researcher who co-authored a 2007 study on the issue.

Craigslist and eBay provide links to the CPSC recall list on their sites. Craigslist CEO Jim Buckmaster says the Web site works with government agencies and others to reduce the incidence of recalled items. Nichola Sharpe, an eBay spokeswoman, says the site works with the CPSC and encourages consumers to report recalled items they find.

Jeffrey Weidenhamer, a chemistry professor at Ashland University in Ohio, routinely has had students test products and send warnings to the CPSC, usually without much response. But Weidenhamer says the tide might be turning. In late September 2008, he received a call from a CPSC staff member asking whether he had any new lead-testing results for further investigation by the agency. "I'd never gotten a phone call like that before," Weidenhamer says, "so I think it's an encouraging sign that problems with lead finally are starting to be taken more seriously."

What you can do

Lower your risk of lead exposure by taking these steps:

  • Keep children away from keys, key chains, cheap beads and artificial pearls, and kids' metal jewelry, which have been found to contain lead.
  • Beware of lead in toys and other products with screen-printed or painted surfaces, including paint on plastic, fabric, or metal. Some inexpensive items for Halloween, Christmas, and Easter have also been recalled.
  • Periodically check for recalls and product safety news at www.cpsc.gov.
  • To test a product for surface lead, consider the Homax Lead Check, Lead Check Household Lead Test Kit (shown), and Lead Inspector. They can be useful but limited screening tools that detect surface lead but not total lead content. Items that test positive shouldn't be used. For a more exact lead level, an item must be tested professionally.

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