Abigail Goldman and Marc Lifsher, The Los Angeles Times, Business News

State law holds sway, but there's no uniform procedure in place.

What has happened to the millions of toys, lunchboxes and other
products recalled recently because they contain hazardous levels of
lead or lead paint?

No one is exactly sure. And that worries some consumer activists,
environmentalists and others who caution about weak oversight of the
disposal process.

Lead-laced products, they warn, could contaminate landfills or
groundwater. Even worse, they say, is that some recalled toys and other
goods get resold — both in the U.S. and abroad.

"There are so many recalls right now and nobody is saying, 'What's
next?' " said Charlie Pizarro, associate director for the Center for
Environmental Health in Oakland. "There is no answer for how to dispose
of them."

There is no single, nationally accepted procedure for dealing with such items from the time of recall to final, safe disposal.

The Consumer Product Safety Commission, the federal agency that
oversees the recall of lead-tainted and other dangerous items, asks
consumers to return the products to the company recalling them. Those
companies are then bound by state laws regarding disposal of hazardous
materials, an agency spokeswoman said.

"You can't just throw it in the kitchen garbage can; there are
regulations on disposal," spokeswoman Julie Vallese said. "The
companies are well aware of state laws and state guidelines they need
to follow."

But Jamie Cameron-Harley, a spokeswoman for the California Integrated
Waste Management Board, which overseas municipal garbage dumps and
recycling programs, says she's mystified about the ultimate destination
of the lead-laced products — especially those returned to companies.

"Everyone says give them back to the manufacturer, but we don't know what the manufacturer does with it," she said.

In other cases, state agencies have urged consumers to bring
lead-tainted items to local hazardous waste disposal sites or to state

Two weeks ago, for instance, California had to initiate its own recall
of lead-contaminated totes handed out by the state Department of Public

Subsequently, the California Public Employees Retirement System found
unsafe lead levels on some of the 600 similar lunch bags it gave away
at orientation meetings.

Both agencies urged people who had the bags either to return them to
the place they got them or dispose of them at local centers for
household hazardous waste — where items such as batteries, oil-based
paints and computer monitors also are supposed to go.

But Pat Macht, a spokeswoman for the state pension system, said her
agency hadn't been told what to do with any lunchboxes it gets back.
"We're waiting for direction about how to dispose of them," she said.

Lead paint has been banned in the United States since 1978 because lead
poisoning can cause brain and neurological problems, particularly in

According to experts, only a fraction of consumers actually return
recalled products to manufacturers — mostly big-ticket items that
would be expensive to replace. Mattel, which has issued dozens of
recalls of toys in recent years, said that, historically, about 6% of
recalled products are returned.

Several toy manufacturers were contacted for this article, but only
Mattel would comment on its plans for returned lead-tainted products.
The El Segundo-based company said it was still evaluating how best to
handle returned products from its recalls of 2.2 million toys possibly
contaminated with lead paint.

RC2 Corp., the Illinois-based manufacturer that this year recalled more
than 1.7 million Thomas & Friends wooden railway toys because of
unsafe lead levels, said the company so far had gotten back about 70%
of the 1.5 million toys it recalled in June. It wouldn't say what it
was doing with them.

Likewise, Oriental Trading Co., a Nebraska company that this year
recalled 132,000 children's "religious fish necklaces," declined to
discuss its disposal plans.

Mattel said it planned to recycle as many components of its returned
toys as possible, including selling or reusing zinc and some of the
resins used to make the toys.

Leftover remnants, including any lead, will be handled by outside
companies hired for their expertise in recycling and safe disposal of
those materials, said Jeff Denchfield, the company's senior director of
global sustainability.

Until then, because of pending litigation, returned products are being
stored near some Mattel distribution centers in Southern California,
Texas and New York, the company said.

So far, tests of the recalled products found lead content below the
state's threshold for hazardous materials — less than 1,000 parts per
million, the company said.

That puts Mattel in a better position than the state.

Preliminary testing of the Department of Public Health's lunchboxes has
found lead at 1,300 parts per million, which means that the containers
must be classified as hazardous waste and that they are subject to
special regulations for handling and disposal, said Maureen Gorse,
director of the state Department of Toxic Substances Control.

The classification means that the products cannot be stored for more
than 90 days without an extraordinary special permit, Gorse said. They
also must be shipped by specially licensed haulers to state-regulated
recycling or disposal sites.

In the meantime, the governor's office and the toxic substances control
agency have ordered agencies to inventory items, such as lunchboxes,
that have a high probability of containing lead, Gorse said. Under
state and federal law, manufacturers, importers or owners of
lead-tainted products are responsible for the items' disposal if they
are determined to be hazardous waste.

Even when lead-tainted products aren't considered hazardous, that
doesn't mean dumping them in regular landfills is the best option,
environmentalists say.

"It's best to treat them for what they are, as a material that contains
a toxic chemical and needs to be handled with care," said Tom Neltner,
a lawyer and chemical engineer who serves as co-chairman of the Sierra
Club's National Toxics Committee. "But the most important thing is to
get them away from kids and to keep them away from kids."

Added Caroline Cox, research director for the Center for Environmental
Health: "Lead doesn't go away, it's a metal — it doesn't break down or
transform into a nontoxic substance, it stays lead. We take lead from
mines and disperse it across the environment. That's not a good thing
for kids or anybody else."

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