Nonprofit Finds Big Problems in Kids’ Products (Oakland Tribune)
Douglas Fischer, The Oakland Tribune
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The danger sat silent in a tube of diaper rash ointment, awaiting its application
to a baby's chaffed and broken skin.
Mixed with the protective zinc and soothing aloe lurked lead, a potent neurotoxin,
particularly to the very, very young.
The discovery came five years ago from the Center for Environmental Health,
or CEH, a small Oakland nonprofit that, on a hunch, had several tubes of the
ointment tested. Four of the 16 ointments contained at least four times the
contamination California regulators deem acceptable.
The findings got almost no attention then. But that modest discovery sparked
a scorching series of investigations and recalls into children's products that
has roiled North America's $24 billion toy market. CEH and other investigators
have found lead in virtually every category of children's products tested, from
anti-diarrhea medications to plastic bibs and lunch boxes, toy jewelry, dolls
It has forced retailers to pull millions of toys and products off their shelves
in an attempt to assure the public their wares are safe, while manufacturers
scramble to figure out what is in their products and regulators play catch-up.
"That (spate of recalls) obviously is not something that can continue on
an ongoing basis,'' said Frank Clarke, spokesman for the Toy Industry Association,
which represents major manufacturers.
But from CEH's perspective, this is only the beginning.
"Lead is getting the attention, but there's a bigger picture,'' Michael Green, CEH's executive director, said from
his group's offices in a converted North Oakland home just a hop-scotch game
away from a ball field. "There are scores of other chemicals in children's
products that we haven't tested as thoroughly as lead.''
"We need to relook at (the issue),'' he added. "We need to have industry
look at how they can make the products we want without using chemicals that
haven't been tested for their safety.''
In each case where CEH found lead in a product, it has alerted or sued manufacturers
under California's strong consumer protection laws and forced either the elimination
or dramatic reduction of the metal.
But the range of products and potentially problematic chemicals is too vast
for such an individual approach, Green notes. What's needed, he said, is beefier
enforcement combined with a more precautionary chemical policy that bans potentially
Of course, not all toys are high in lead. Nor are all synthetic chemicals
harmful. It's equally important, health experts caution, to put the recent wave
of lead-related recalls in perspective: Children in smoking households or in
homes with lead paint or who are morbidly obese face far more health danger
than anything posed by a bit of lead in their vinyl lunch box.
But then there's the case of a 4-year-old Minnesota boy who, unbeknownst to
anyone, swallowed a small heart-shaped charm that came with a pair of Reebok
shoes. That charm was later found to be 99.1 percent lead, something discovered
only after young Jarnell Brown had died a grisly death, with doctors vainly
attempting to diagnose his swelling brain, intractable vomiting and combative
The perplexing problem for activists and consumers alike is that, standing
in an aisle in Wal-Mart or Target stuffed floor to rafters with imported plastic
toys, no one can say which products are tinged with lead and which aren't, or
what is safe and what isn't.
Minneapolis health officials later tested two other Reebok charms identical
to the one that killed Jarnell. One was 67 percent lead.
The other was 0.07 percent lead.
Skimming IQ points
The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission lists toys as among the 15 safest
products found in the home.
Lead is perhaps the last thing a parent would expect to find in a plastic bib
or lunchbox, let alone a children's medication or ointment. It is a powerful
Health officials figure lead use in gasoline and paints skimmed five to 10
IQ points from every child growing up in the United States in the 1970s. Lead's
dangers are well understood; scientists increasingly think any amount of lead — no matter how microscopic — risks harming children. New research released last
month suggests that the so-called "natural'' decline in mental capacity afflicting
many older people is instead a function of lead exposure decades earlier, as
children and young adults.
Zinc, the crucial active ingredient in many diaper rash creams, is often mined
from lead-rich deposits. Vinyl, to hold together, needs a metal as a binding
agent. In the U.S., the choice often is tin. But lead or cadmium — far more
reactive and harmful — work as well or better and are cheaper.
The problem is not just imported plastic, Green said. True, CEH has found
more problems with imports, but the issue is really about consumer demand. "It's
really not about China. It's about us. We're the ones who have to protect our
kids,'' he said.
"Under globalization, the large decisions are being made by Wal-Mart. …
If they demand the lowest possible price, there's no choice for manufacturers
but to cut corners.''
Stephanie Sala agrees. Owner of Five Little Monkeys, an upscale toy store
in Albany and Novato, she finds that one of her stores' bigger sellers is a
$20 household lead test kit.
"There is some hysteria about it,'' she said. "At the same time, it is a
good thing to bring to light. People need to be responsible consumers.''
Exacerbating the problem is lax federal law. There is, for instance, no federal
limit for lead in products.
Paint on a toy's surface must be less than 600 parts per million lead – 0.6
percent. What can lie underneath that, however, is anyone's guess. And if it
is deemed out of reach of a child – locked, for instance, in the vinyl within
a lunchbox or backpack – it is not a concern for the safety commission.
The agency has yet to issue a single recall for lead in lunchboxes or backpacks,
despite CEH findings that some of those products are 6 percent or more lead
Legislation before Congress would change all that, establishing a total lead
limit, similar to that of many states, of 600 ppm or less for children's products.
Toy manufacturers, for their part, are drafting a series of protocols and tests
aimed at ensuring products coming onto the market are safe and comply with all
safety requirements, including lead paint.
"It's taking a lot of what has already been happening by CEH in California
and bringing it forward into legislation,'' said safety commission spokesman
And it could clear up some confusion. The amount of recalls last year for lead-tainted
children's merchandise was "substantial,'' Wolfson acknowledged. Two out of
every three recalls on children's products or toys issued by the safety commission
since late August, when the lead issue took off, are due to lead exposure.
"We have not finished every single recall (for lead). There were recalls
this week, and there will be recalls next week. But we're slowly getting better.''
On that last point Green concurs. Lead-related recalls, he predicts, will
be a "very unusual thing'' in two to three years.
"Because it will be so important to (manufacturers') brands to not get busted
with this stuff,'' he said. "But right now, they're not there yet.''
Green started CEH 10 years ago with his credit card, abandoning a post at the
Department of Energy under President Clinton. "I was very unpopular with my
family,'' he added. But, "it's hard to be entrepreneurial when you're a mid-level
He is a wiry man with intensely blue eyes who slips into a three-button suit
for press photos because he wants the business world to know he speaks "their
Today CEH has 11 staffers. Consumer product safety is just one of its missions:
Environmental justice is a big component of its work, and CEH has helped Central
Valley agriculture workers reduce pesticide exposure and East Oakland residents
shut a medical waste incinerator. It has also worked with manufacturers to reformulate
octane boosters that children throughout the western United States were "huffing''
to get high.
In December, the Dalai Lama Foundation lauded Green for protecting children
and others from toxic chemicals
For Green, lead contamination simply underscores several flaws in the consumer
market, namely, what happens when consumers and retailers demand the lowest
possible price while regulators, handicapped by a 1970s-era chemical policy,
fail to adequately police the market.
"We need comprehensive chemical reform,'' he said. "But that's not going
to happen in '08.''
So instead CEH has exploited California's Proposition 65, the Safe Drinking
Water and Toxic Enforcement Act of 1986, to go after manufacturers and retailers.
The law allows citizens or the state to sue companies whose products contain
ingredients known to cause cancer or birth defects.
It is a narrow tool, focusing on one product, one compound at a time. But because
no manufacturer wants to be associated with such toxic compounds, the law can
be devastatingly effective: The manufacturer Marvel Entertainment Group Inc.
last October halted all shipments of Curious George toys the day CEH filed a
Proposition 65 notice alleging the toy contained 10 times the state's legal
limit for lead.
Getting the lead out
Green and the safety commission may believe the lead issue will be solved.
But on a balmy January day at CEH's Oakland offices, the assurance was hard
CEH's conference table was full of toys of every stripe – backpacks, lunchboxes,
tea sets, dolls, sports gear. Generic brands bought at dollar stores mixed with
name brands purchased at big box retailers.
All contained 1 or more percent lead on at least some part of the toy: A plastic
Spongebob Squarepants ball and bat, purchased at Target, with 1 percent lead;
a canvas Dora-the-Explorer backpack from Toys-R-Us with, inexplicably, 6 percent
lead; a generic toy tea set whose decals had 11 percent lead. Curious George
was there; so was a Zippity Do Dolly from Wal-Mart whose plastic shoes contained
1.2 percent lead.
"Toys should not pose any harm at all,'' said Rachel Weintraub, director
of product safety and senior counsel with the Consumer Federation of America,
a nonprofit. "Most of these harms are preventable, whether (manufacturers)
are making the right decisions at the design level, or supporting testing to
make sure products don't enter the market.
"But toys should not pose any harm,'' she continued. "… We know we can
make them safer, and we should.''
Green, dressed in his suit, simply shook his head.
"Unfortunately, in this house we have tons of toys that are filled with lead,
the identical versions of which children are filling with their books or putting
in their mouths,'' He said. "It's crazy. The whole thing is crazy.''