CR and the CPSC on lead test kits: Similar results, different conclusions

Consumer Reports News: October 30, 2007 05:49 PM

Last week, we posted the recommendations from our independent tests of do-it-yourself lead test kits. Our conclusion, that they can be limited but useful screening tools to identify lead in household products, is different from the Consumer Product Safety Commission's recent announcement that consumers should not use these products to find lead in their homes.  Our differences lie not as much in the testing itself as in the interpretation of the data.  Here’s how we came to our conclusions and why we believe parents should consider these kits as a helpful tool for screening household products.

Consumer Reports tested five lead test kits on toys, jewelry, ceramics, and school supplies.  Lead test kits are generally designed to detect surface lead--lead that you can be exposed to by touching or mouthing the product.  We tested for lead on products with surface paint, those made of vinyl or other plastics, and ceramics with colored designs. Overall, we found that the best performing test kits (Homax Lead Check, Lead Check Household Lead Test Kit, and Lead Inspector), while not perfect, are useful tools for consumers who want to screen for lead in their homes.  Our results showed differences among the brands we tested.  The CPSC did not identify the brand names of the kits they tested.   

Because  lead is often hidden beneath the surface, we agree with the CPSC that you shouldn't assume that all items testing negative are actually free of lead. Based on our results, we also agree that a limitation of these kits is that you cannot depend on them to detect lead embedded below the surface of a product.  Where we diverge with the CPSC is in the way  we classify the results.  The CPSC characterized the inability to detect subsurface lead as a “false negative” test result. But because the kits generally don’t claim to test subsurface lead, we think that’s a mischaracterization.  In our view, a false negative is when a kit fails to detect surface lead at levels above its detection limit.  According to this definition, we observed no false negatives for the kits we recommended.  If a product tests negative but you have reason to believe it might contain lead, consider having it tested by a professional.

Since these kits don’t always detect lead under the surface or surface coatings, they are generally not a good tool for detecting lead in metal jewelry.  Inexpensive jewelry is often coated with a shiny metal to give it luster but hazardous lead might lurk beneath.  One CPSC study found that 20 percent of children’s metal jewelry has high levels of lead.  Because children can suck on or even swallow jewelry, we think that cheap jewelry presents a risk not worth taking and recommend against buying it. (Visit our gallery of jewelry recalled by the CPSC.)

The CPSC also warned that home lead tests could result in “false positives.”  A false positive result could cause you to throw away items that actually contain no lead.  We agree that false positives can occur but it did not happen in our tests.  In fact, the CPSC  found that this happened in only two out of 104 tests and in those cases the agency acknowledged that both could possibly have been due to interference of a red sample's color with the reaction color of the test kit.

Like CPSC, we also found that not all the test kits are easy to use and we recommend that you carefully follow directions and plan on practicing a little. Getting an accurate reading might take a few minutes, or even a couple of hours in some cases, to allow the color to develop if the initial result is negative.  One type of swab turns pink or red in the presence of lead.  You need to follow manufacturer’s instructions for red and pink items and be careful not to misinterpret pink or red paints that rub off onto the swabs as a false indication of lead presence.  Our report pointed to one kit, Lead Inspector, that might perform better for pink or red items because it does not have a red or pink color change.

Because we are concerned that so many lead-laden products have slipped into our homes, we recommend that you regularly check the CPSC recall list.  If you are concerned about other specific items in your home, especially if you have small children who put things in their mouths, these lead test kits might be a useful tool.  Once a lead test kit tells you that a beloved ceramic bowl or favorite toy might have lead, you can make your own decision about what to do with that item: toss it, send it to a lab for additional testing, or place it out of reach of your children. Though a negative result is no guarantee that the item is lead free, these kits, limitations and all, give you more information than you have today and, more important, allow you to actually do something to help minimize your children’s exposure to a hazardous substance.

And don’t forget that it’s very important to minimize lead exposures from old paint or plumbing and to have your child’s blood tested for lead levels, especially if they are less than 2 years old.

If you use a home lead test kit and get positive results, please share the information with us by clicking on Report a Safety Problem.

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