staff reporters; Tribune staff reporters Maurice Possley and Ameet Sachdev contributed to this report, Tribune

The hundreds of thousands of lunchboxes given away by state health
officials were designed to promote healthful habits, bearing slogans
such as "Eat Fruits & Vegetables and Be Active." Just one problem:
At least some of them were made with unhealthful levels of lead.

The California Department of Public Health said Thursday that it was
recalling 300,000 green and blue canvas lunch coolers made in China and
distributed throughout the state at health fairs and other events since

"It's unfortunate that an item we're
using hopefully to promote healthy behavior is discovered itself to be
a potential health hazard," said Dr. Mark Horton, director of the
state's public health department and a pediatrician. "Kids have a habit
of putting their hands in their mouth a lot, and the food inside the
lunchbox possibly could be contaminated."

The recall underscores the difficulty of ensuring the safety of
millions of products produced around the world and sold — or given
away — in the United States. A wave of high-profile toy recalls this
year, including millions of Mattel Inc. products containing lead paint,
spurred manufacturers and retailers to implement new controls. The
problem with lead in consumer products, however, goes beyond one
industry, activists say.

No injuries have been reported as a result of the lead-tainted
lunchboxes, California health officials said. But no exposure to lead
is considered safe.

Lead is particularly dangerous to the developing brains and nervous
systems of children. Exposure, usually as a result of deteriorating old
paint in a home, can affect a child's learning ability, hearing,
height, nervous system and gastrointestinal tract and, in larger doses,
can cause seizures, coma and death.

Children deficient in iron and other key nutrients are particularly
susceptible to lead poisoning. Many of the now-recalled lunchboxes went
to low-income Californians, including recipients of food stamps.

The recall includes 56,000 dark-green canvas lunchboxes with Spanish
and English versions of the "Eat Fruits & Vegetables" logo. State
health officials were alerted to the problem after technicians from the
Sacramento County Health Department, doing a spot check in late July,
found elevated lead levels.

Subsequent tests by the state's Department of Toxic Substances Control
found that multiple parts of the boxes, such as the vinyl lining,
contained lead.

The highest lead levels were found in the bag's decorative logo, a
shining yellow sun and brightly colored fruits and vegetables along
with the Web address.

Horton said the tests showed lead levels "significantly above" 600
parts per million, the legal limit. One box tested at 1,700 parts per
million, according to the Department of Public Health.

Although lead paint has been banned in the United States since 1978,
factories in some countries have used lead as an inexpensive way to,
among other things, make paint dry faster and last longer.

The department said it also was recalling about 245,000 blue canvas
lunchboxes distributed as part of two other state programs, the Network
for a Healthy California and the Special Supplemental Program for
Women, Infants and Children, or WIC.

The blue lunchboxes, with similar logos urging consumers to "Eat 5
a Day," have not tested positive for lead, the department said, but are
being recalled as a precaution.

The health department said consumers should stop using the boxes
and return them to the place they got them or take them to a local
household hazardous waste collection facility for disposal.

Importer T-A Creations Inc. of Los Angeles said the products passed
lead and other quality tests before being exported from the Chinese
manufacturer, Quan Zhou Wei Wah Industries in Fujian province.

Still, T-A Chief Executive David Chen said his company always
recommends that buyers include a label warning that the products might
contain lead, a known hazard.

"A lot of materials contain lead; we just don't know how [much], so
even though we pass all the tests, we give the suggestion to put a
warning label in there," Chen said. "My customers say, 'No, we don't
really need it.' "

Soft, cooler-type lunchboxes have been a target of environmental and
health activists for years because some manufacturers have used lead
during production to stabilize the boxes' vinyl lining.

The Center for Environmental Health in Oakland said the problem had
lessened since it sued lunchbox manufacturers in 2005, alleging that
they violated California's Proposition 65, which in 1986 began
requiring warning labels on all products known to cause cancer, birth
defects or reproductive harm.

In 2005, 10% to 20% of the 200 lunchboxes the group tested had high
lead levels, said research director Caroline Cox. Last month, when the
group repeated its survey, few if any contained lead, she said.

A spokeswoman for the state health department said the state received
some of the now- recalled bags from a contractor, KP Fulfillment. KP
bought just over 100,000 of the cooler bags last November and still has
more than 43,700 of them. The remaining 56,396 coolers "are in the
hands of our partners or consumers," said spokeswoman Suanne Buggy.

Although lead is a common component of many regular household items, it
cannot be in any consumer product sold in California unless the product
bears a Proposition 65 warning.

Every year, toys and other children's products are recalled by the
Consumer Product Safety Commission because lead is discovered in the
products' paint.

But this year's wave of recalls of Chinese-made products, including
lead-paint problems with millions of toys from well-known brands such
as Mattel, has riled consumers and lawmakers.

The problem with the lunchboxes is regrettable but not surprising, said
Dr. Ralph Salimpour, a lead expert and pediatrician at UCLA. "It should
open our eyes," he said.

Dr. Gina Solomon, a public health specialist with the Natural Resources
Defense Council in San Francisco, said that overall, the recent crush
of recalls has resulted in heightened awareness, which is positive.
"I would give the Department of Public Health a lot of credit for admitting the problem and taking action," she said.