Martha Mendoza, Houston Chronicle

of 2005 tests shows high levels were kept from public

In 2005, when government
scientists tested 60 soft, vinyl lunchboxes, they found that one in five
contained amounts of lead that medical experts consider unsafe – and several
had more than 10 times hazardous levels.

But that's not what they
told the public.

Instead, the Consumer
Product Safety Commission released a statement that they found "no instances
of hazardous levels." And they refused to release their actual test
results, citing regulations that protect manufacturers from having their
information released to the public.

That data was not made
public until the Associated Press received a box of about 1,500 pages of lab
reports, in-house e-mails and other records in response to a Freedom of
Information Act request filed a year ago.

The documents describe two
types of tests. One involves cutting a chunk of vinyl off the bag, dissolving
it and then analyzing how much lead is in the solution; the second test
involves swiping the surface of a bag and then determining how much lead has
rubbed off.

The results of the first
type of test, looking for the actual lead content of the vinyl, showed that 20
percent of the bags had more than 600 parts per million of lead – the federal
safe level for paint and other products. The highest level was 9,600 ppm, more
than 16 times the federal standard.

But the CPSC did not use
those results.

"When it comes to a
lunchbox, it's carried. The food that you put in the lunchbox may have an outer
wrapping, a baggie, so there isn't direct exposure. The direct exposure would
be if kids were putting their lunchboxes in their mouth, which isn't a common
way for children to interact with their lunchbox," said CPSC spokeswoman
Julie Vallese.

Thus the CPSC focused
exclusively on how much lead came off the surface of a lunchbox when lab
workers swiped them.

For the swipe tests, the
results were lower, especially after the researchers changed their testing

After a handful of tests,
they increased the number of times they swiped each bag, again and again on the
same spot, resulting in lower average results.

An in-house e-mail from the
director of the CPSC's chemistry division explained that they had been
retesting with the new protocol, "which gave a lower average result than
the prior report … " he wrote. "This shows that the overall risk is
lower than our original testing would have showed, as the amount of lead
dislodgeable is mostly taken out with the first wipe and goes down with
subsequent wipes."

Vallese explained it this
way: "The more you wipe, the less lead you actually find. With fewer wipes
we got a higher detection of lead presence. We thought more wipes was closer to
reflecting how you would interact with your lunchbox. It was more

The test results also show
that many lunchboxes were tested only on the outside, which is unlikely to be
in contact with food. Vallese said this was because children handle their
lunchboxes from the outside.

As a result of their tests,
the CPSC issued a public statement last year reassuring consumers they had
nothing to worry about: "Based on the extremely low levels of lead found
in our tests, in most cases, children would have to rub their lunchbox and then
lick their hands more than 600 times every day, for about 15-30 days, in order
for the lunchbox to present a health hazard."

Vallese said the commission
stands by those statements.

But the results were
disconcerting to experts who reviewed them for the AP.

"They found levels
that we consider very high," said Alexa Engelman, a researcher at the
Oakland, Calif.-based Center for Environmental Health, which has filed a series
of legal complaints about lead in lunchboxes.

"They knew this all
along and they didn't take action on it. It's upsetting to me. Why are we, as a
country, protecting the companies? We should be protecting the kids. I don't
think in this instance they did their job."

Said Rep. Henry A. Waxman,
D-Calif.: "I am concerned that the CPSC has failed to protect children
from an unnecessary hazard they have known about for some time. We should
protect our children by banning lead in all children's products."

Although these test results
are only now being aired publicly, the CPSC did provide them to the Food and
Drug Administration last summer.

FDA's reaction was completely different from the CPSC's. In July, 2006, after
receiving the test results, the FDA sent a letter to lunchbox manufacturers
warning them that their lead levels might be dangerously high and advising them
that the FDA might take action against them because the lead would be
considered a food additive if it rubbed off onto kids' lunches.