How Art Thou Wrong, Ms. Northup? Let Me Count the Ways

In my recent letter to the editor of the Wall Street Journal, I responded to Ann Northup, a commissioner of the federal Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), who wrote a misleading editorial in The Journal, opposing new federal legislation that protects children from lead in toys and other consumer products.

Why would a government official charged with protecting people from hazardous consumer products rail against legislation that improves her agency’s ability power to do just that? I’d be speculating if I answered, so I’ll mention what seems clear: Northup (one of two Republican Commissioners at CPSC) seems less interested in children’s health than in perpetuating myths, falsehoods, and half-truths about the new rules.

Wrong Once

Northup claims that the law makes it impossible for companies to produce many common children’s products. “This means such ordinary items as zippers, buttons, belts, the hinge on a child’s dresser—and even that bicycle from Santa Claus—are outlawed,” she says.

SPOILER ALERT #1: Santa Claus doesn’t make bicycles; factory workers in China do.

SPOILER ALERT #2: The law doesn’t “outlaw” zippers, hinges, and other components of kids’ products; it simply requires that they be made without lead. Is Northup really suggesting that it’s impossible to make buttons without lead? It’s not.

Wrong Twice

Under the new law, strict lead limits for toys and other children’s products are mandatory for the first time. The law also increases CPSC’s authority to stop the import of hazardous children’s products, and it bans the resale of recalled products. Instead of applauding these prudent new protections for children’s health, Northup wants to weaken the law and lower the age range of children protected by it, suggesting that, because lead is more dangerous to younger children, older kids don’t need legal protection.

Lead exposure is harmful at any age, and since lead accumulates in our bodies, eliminating early exposures is an important way to minimize later risks. Recent studies show that adults exposed to low doses of lead over time have impaired mental abilities and have more problems with high blood pressure, kidney problems and other health woes. Lead also poses a heightened threat to young women and their babies. One recent study showed that women with higher blood-lead levels have higher rates of miscarriages, and other studies have found a significant decline in the IQ of children of women with higher blood-lead levels.

Wrong Three Times

Most worrisome, Northup incorrectly claims people can not absorb lead from materials other than paint. Wrong again.

For more on this, see the 2007 Consumer Reports article about two Minnesota children with elevated blood-lead levels. Researchers traced this lead directly to numerous lead-contaminated household items the children played and interacted with, including a vinyl diaper bag, toys, and several other children’s products. Which is to say, Ms. Northup, that the lead in these products can, in fact, be absorbed by people.

The Minnesota family is hardly unique. In fact, other lead sources such as toys, household products, and other consumer items are responsible for approximately thirty percent of elevated blood-lead levels in kids. While paint in older homes remains the primary source of lead exposure to children, it is just one of many materials that poses a lead threat to kids.

Wrong Four and Five Times

Northup complains that certain brass pieces on toy cars are needlessly subject to the new lead laws. She claims that lead in “substrate” metals – the metal base below a plated or coated surface – is not “bioavailable” and thus cannot harm children. She also says that tests showed that the brass exposes children to “less lead than the Food and Drug Administration allows in a piece of candy.” There are two items to correct here.

First, coating lead does not make it safe. Jarnell Brown, a four-year-old Minneapolis boy, swallowed a metal charm and died from lead poisoning in 1996. What killed Jarnell? Substrate lead that was entirely coated. The fact is that plating is neither durable nor effective at encapsulating lead.

Second, when Northup compares regulations on substrate lead to those on lead in candy, she either misunderstands the science or consciously attempts to confuse people. The FDA standard on lead in candy regulates the total amount of lead in the product – that is, how many units of lead a child would ingest along with the candy. But the brass test that upsets Northup doesn’t actually measure the amount of lead in the brass; it only measures how much lead comes off in a laboratory wipe test. (Finally, I’ve gotten around to discussing the meaning of brass wiping.)

But that’s where the jokes end. A child sucking on the brass or swallowing it could actually ingest a much higher, potentially lethal, dose of lead. Northup’s comparison is an apples-to-oranges shell game that obscures serious risks to children from unneeded lead in toys.

Fortunately, Ms. Northup didn’t write the new federal law, which cuts through phony arguments about “absorption” and “bioavailability.” Northup waxes nostalgic for the good ole days when convenience and profits trumped children’s health, and she urges Congress to return to lead standards that were based on a reckless question: how much lead is it ok to dose our children with?

The new federal lead rules require manufacturers to answer a more precautionary question: how can we eliminate unnecessary lead in products for children? The new law is a strong and long-overdue health standard, and it is based on the scientific consensus that, where children are concerned, we should eliminate every possible lead threat. Conveniently, it is also the standard that parents demand when they buy products for their children.

Far too many children suffered lead exposures while waiting for the new law. But after years of fighting, we finally have strong federal regulations protecting our kids from lead.

If only the leaders of the agency empowered to protect kids from lead agreed their job was important.