Not Easy to Get the Lead Out of Our Lives
Deborah K. Rich, SF Chronicle
Recent evidence suggests rules don’t go far enough to protect children
Lead in telephone cords. Lead in chocolates and Mexican candies. Lead in
children’s charm bracelets, necklaces, flashlights and lunch boxes. The United States
may run on unleaded gas, but it’s far from lead-free.
Not only did our heavy use of leaded gas, paint and lead arsenate pesticides
throughout the 1900s add a lead load to our soils that we will continue to
track into our homes and to consume in agricultural products for decades, but
manufacturers here and abroad continue to use lead to make other consumer
products from computers to jewelry, lozenges, pottery and makeup. Lead is
cheap. Lead is dense, malleable and resistant to corrosion. Lead lends luster
to fake pearls and ceramic glazes, and makes a good stabilizer in soft PVC
For all its industrial appeal, lead is highly toxic to humans. A systemic
toxin, it impairs the functioning of multiple systems in the body, including
the reproductive and nervous systems. In both adults and children, severe lead
poisoning can damage the brain and kidneys and cause seizures, coma and death.
No one disputes lead’s toxicity. Still, given our past and present use of
lead, keeping lead out of our hands and mouths and those of our children
requires proactive measures and a measure of luck.
Accidental ingestion of lead in dust and dirt in and around homes painted
before 1978 continues to be the primary avenue of lead poisoning in children.
The lead content of dust and dirt in and around homes located near freeways and
old industrial zones is also frequently high as the result of fallout from the
use of leaded gasoline. So too the lead load in soils around homes built on old
orchard sites as a result of prior use of lead arsenate pesticides.
Fortunately, by knowing the age and history of a house, homeowners can make an
educated guess as to how likely the presence of lead is, and, where warranted,
have the lead levels of painted surfaces, garden soils and household dust
Anticipating where lead lurks in consumer products is trickier, and knowing
whether the levels present pose a risk is even more difficult. Some items, like
folk pottery and leaded glassware, are proven offenders. But, even with these
items, we can’t judge their accessible lead content (lead which is likely to
rub off onto our hands, or our children’s tongues, or to leach into our food
and drink) by looking, and manufacturing practices differ country to country
and company to company. When it comes to judging the lead content of vinyl lunch
boxes, candies and PVC-coated power appliance cords, most of us are out of our
league and surprised to learn that these everyday items contain toxic metals.
Humankind has a long besotted history with lead. Despite the association of
lead with colic and anemia as early as 200 B.C., the Romans made such
widespread use of lead that the Latin name for lead, plumbum, persists in our
lexicon today, and lead poisoning addled the brains of many of the famed
empire’s citizens. Operating smelters that required the labor of thousands of
slaves, the Romans churned out leaden cooking pots, wine urns, cosmetics and
pipes to transport water (thus the word, “plumbing”). The Romans also
made widespread use of sapa, a sweet boiled-down concentrate of grape juice, to
preserve and enhance the flavor of their wines and to sweeten many foods. The
Romans made the sapa in lead kettles. Because the highly acidic grape juice
would cause the lead to leach, the final product, sapa, contained high levels
of lead. The Romans ingested so much lead in their water and food that
historians believe lead poisoning contributed to the decline of the Roman Empire. Among other things, Nero and Caligula may
have been “plumb crazy.”
It wasn’t until 1996 that the United States completely banned the
on-road use of leaded gas (though it had been largely phased out on-road by the
mid-1980s), despite warnings as early as the mid-1920s about the potential
dangers of the widespread use of leaded gasoline. In 1904, an Australian
scientist first established the link between lead paint and lead poisoning in
children. By 1921, 20 to 30 countries had banned the use of lead paint. Here in
the United States,
however, we continued to paint our houses with lead until 1978. Use of lead
arsenate pesticides began in the United States in 1892 and continued
for 100 years, right through the mounting furor over leaded gas and paint,
until the EPA canceled their registration in 1993.
Our flirtation with lead poisoning continues as we choose to regulate rather
than ban its use in consumer products, trusting in our ability to identify and
enforce maximum levels of lead below which no harm occurs. Certainly, given
lead’s ubiquitousness in our soils, it would be nearly impossible to institute
a “zero tolerance” for lead in agricultural products. Trace amounts
of lead are in many foods. The Food and Drug Administration monitors how much
lead we are consuming in commonly eaten foods via the Total Diet Studies (also
known as the market basket studies) that it conducts four times a year to track
the levels of various contaminants and nutrients in food. In addition, the FDA
has set guidelines for the maximum amount of lead that can be in candy, ceramic
ware, wine and bottled water. “If the products are grossly out of
compliance the FDA could take enforcement action,” says Michael Herndon of
the FDA’s Office of Public Affairs.
But our use of lead goes far beyond what we can’t avoid. “To say, ‘just
ban it,’ would be a disservice to those consumers who receive benefit from the
products lead is used in,” says Julie Vallese, director of public affairs
for the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission. “The better strategy is
for us to maintain guidance and surveillance.” The commission is charged
with protecting the public from “unreasonable risks of serious injury or
death” from more than 15,000 types of consumer products.
The commission regulates lead hazard on a case-by-case basis to determine
how much lead is accessible to people using or handling a product, and whether
this amount poses a health risk. When making a decision, the commission takes
into account, as per its Guidance for Lead (Pb) in Consumer Products: the total
amount of lead contained in a product, the bioavailability of the lead, the
accessibility of the lead to children, the age and foreseeable behavior of the
children exposed to the product, the foreseeable duration of the exposure, and
the marketing, patterns of use, and life cycle of the product. “The dose
makes the poison,” says Scott Wolfson, a commission spokesman. “The
danger is not the mere presence of lead; the danger lies in whether it can
become exposed to the child, to the hands, directly into the mouth, and how
much goes into the stomach and into the bloodstream.”
Though the commission hasn’t the authority to evaluate the lead hazard of
products before their release in the marketplace, it can conduct inspections of
suspect products, whether produced domestically or imported, and order product
recalls where it deems the lead hazard to be significant. Since 2003, the
commission has ordered more than a dozen recalls of children’s metal jewelry,
resulting in 160 million units of jewelry with high accessible lead levels
being pulled off the market.
In the early 1990s, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention set 10
micrograms of lead per deciliter of blood as the threshold for lead in
children; at blood lead levels less than 10 micrograms, the CDC was reasonably
certain that children suffered no detrimental effects. Based upon this
threshold, federal regulatory bodies like the FDA and the safety commission
calculate how much lead a child can consume without going over the threshold,
and to what degree the amount of accessible lead in any given product poses a
Recent studies, however, dispute whether there is any safe level of lead
consumption. “There has now been a series of studies that have shown that
there is no evidence of a threshold for children,” says Dr. Bruce
Lanphear, director of the Cincinnati Children’s Environmental Health
Center. “If we look
at children whose highest blood lead levels never exceeded 10 micrograms per
deciliter — so this is relevant for children who have always fallen below the
CDC’s existing action level — we see anywhere from a four to a
seven-and-a-half point drop in IQ if you look at an increase in blood lead
levels from less than one microgram per deciliter up to about 10.”
In adults, levels of lead exposure previously considered to be harmless are
proving to be predictors of hypertension, strokes, cardiovascular diseases like
heart attacks, increased risk of spontaneous abortion and miscarriage, renal
disease, cataracts, cognitive failure and tooth decay.
The disparity between the level of lead that current science indicates is
detrimental and the accepted threshold built into federal guidelines for lead
exposure explains why the Center for Environmental Health in Oakland sued
manufacturers and retailers of vinyl lunch boxes containing lead in August
2005, even though the Consumer Product Safety Commission determined that the
levels of accessible lead in the lunch boxes posed no risk to children.
The lunch boxes at the center of the lawsuits are made out of soft PVC
(polyvinyl chloride) or “vinyl.” Vinyl can’t hold its form without
the addition of a metal to stabilize it. Lead is one of the metals
manufacturers can use.
The CEH filed the lawsuits under Proposition 65, California’s Safe Drinking Water and Toxic
Enforcement Act, which allows for citizen enforcement when consumer products
contain illegal amounts of chemicals determined by the state to cause cancer or
reproductive toxicity. “California
law is 30 times more stringent in regards to lead exposure than federal
regulations,” says Lara Cushing, research director for the CEH. “The
federal standards are based on outdated blood lead levels that don’t protect
against developmental problems in children such as lowered cognitive function,
behavioral problems and hearing loss.”
On Feb. 15, the CEH announced that InGEAR, the country’s third-largest
producer of lunch boxes and coolers, had agreed to phase out all use of PVC in
its products within two years. “This is simply one that we figured
out,” says Michael Green, executive director of CEH. “But there’s all
these different products that are exposing kids to lead that no one knows about
except the industry that’s making the product.”
Until we figure the other products out and eliminate as much chronic low
lead exposure from our surroundings as possible, we will continue to compromise
the functioning of our children. A study published by the American Association
of Pediatrics in 2003 estimated that one-fourth of all children in the United
States have blood lead levels higher than 5 micrograms per deciliter.
Where we know to look for lead
The California Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention Branch (CCLPPB) lists the
following as common sources of lead:
— Lead-based paint (pre-1978), on houses and painted furniture.
— Lead-contaminated soil especially near busy roadways or factories.
— Lead-contaminated dust from paint or soil.
— Lead brought into the home on clothing from work or hobbies involving the
use of lead including: battery manufacturing, radiator repair, construction,
soldering, recycling, demolition, painting, working with stained glass, pottery
making, target shooting and casting fishing weights.
— Imported food in cans sealed with lead solder. Look for wide seams.
— Imported home digestive remedies and cosmetics may contain lead. Examples
include: Alarcon, Alkohl, Azarcon, Bali goli,
Bint al zahab, Coral, Greta (the FDA warns that Greta is 99 percent lead
oxide), Farouk, Ghasard, Kandu, Kohl, Liga, Litargirio, Lozeena, Pay-loo-ah,
Sindoor and Surma. The CCLPPB advises that there are many others.
— Imported or handmade pottery and tableware with leaded glaze.
— Imported candies or foods, especially from Mexico, containing chili or
tamarind. Lead may be in both food and wrappers or pottery containers.
— Metal costume jewelry including children’s jewelry sold in vending
machines, children’s charm bracelets and necklaces.
— In addition to the sources of lead listed by the CCLPPB, the FDA warns
that progressive hair dyes contain lead acetate and should be kept out of the
hands of children. The FDA also advises homeowners to check their plumbing as
corroded lead plumbing, lead solder on copper plumbing and brass faucets
(which, before 1997, could contain up to 8 percent lead) can leach lead into