Christine and Erik Johnson of Minneapolis were thrust into the role of detectives when they learned in November 2006 that their 9-month-old son, Coen, had a blood lead level about five times the national average for children under 5. His 2-year-old sister, Nora, had a lead level that was almost triple the average. Christine and Erik Johnson of Minneapolis were thrust into the role of detectives when they learned in November 2006 that their 9-month-old son, Coen, had a blood lead level about five times the national average for children under 5. His 2-year-old sister, Nora, had a lead level that was almost triple the average.
The Johnsons were mystified because earlier that year their house got a clean bill of health. Their county housing department verified that the couple had cut lead exposure hazards in their 84-year-old home by taking steps such as replacing old windows covered in lead paint, a major source of lead poisoning in the U.S.
After the toddlers’ blood tests came back, a health department official referred the Johnsons to Bill Radosevich, a national expert on lead in consumer products. He helped inspect their home with a lead-screening device, an X-ray fluorescence analyzer.
They were astonished at what he found. More than 15 items screened positive for lead, including a pasta bowl, a decorative belt on Nora’s jeans, the vinyl lining of a diaper bag in which she carried her toys, and some of the toys themselves. Particularly high in lead content were the tires on a toddler-sized wagon that Coen played with daily, turning it on its side so that he could grab its wheels and delight in watching them spin.
After they removed the items, tests showed a drop in the children’s lead levels. It’s difficult to know what role the lead-tainted items played in their children’s test results, but the Johnsons are relieved. Christine just wishes the government and industry had been more vigilant. “We shouldn’t have to be the ones doing the testing to make sure our toys and dishes don’t contain lead,” she says.
As the Johnsons discovered, lead hazards in consumer products aren’t limited to the millions of toys recalled so far this year. Four months of reporting and testing by Consumer Reports found that lead is in an array of everyday items and that the system that should protect consumers has gaping holes. Here’s what we found:
CAUSE FOR CONCERN Our tests found high levels of total lead in some Fisher-Price blood pressure cuffs, above, and Elmer’s Glue Stick Caps.
- Our lab tests detected lead at widely varying levels in samples of dishware, jewelry, glue stick caps, vinyl backpacks, children’s ceramic tea sets, and other toys and items not on any federal recall list.
- Samples of a Fisher-Price blood pressure cuff that is part of a toy medical kit had surface lead in worrisome amounts. Parents should remove this toy from use.
- Many consumer products are allowed to contain some lead, but most don’t need to because there are almost always safer alternatives.
- For children, recent studies suggest developmental problems can occur at blood lead levels below what the government now considers elevated. That argues for lowering the level, some experts say.
- For older Americans, a portion of memory loss and other neurocognitive problems associated with “normal” aging might be linked to our lifetime dose of lead, according to recent studies.
Brian Schwartz, M.D., a Johns Hopkins University professor of environmental health sciences, epidemiology, and medicine who led the research, says, “Over the past 60 years, people were dosed with a lot of lead and we’re only beginning to understand what that did to them.”
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