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California Toy Testing Events Protect Kids from Lead

New America Media, News Report, Ngoc Nguyen Posted: Dec 16, 2008

Editors Note: A $1.5 million settlement from major toymakers funds California environmental groups to test toys and other products for high lead levels, helping protect children and educate ethnic communities. Ngoc Nguyen is an editor for New America Media.

OAKLAND, Calif.Heddy Garcia, the mother of two toddlers, was picking up her kids from a Head Start program here Thursday, when teachers told her about a free toy-testing event in the nearby shopping and transit hub called Fruitvale Village.

"Thursday is sharing day, so the kids brought toys," she said.

Garcias 5-year-old son David reluctantly handed over his big yellow truck, while his mother pulled an apple-sized, plastic bumble bee from the hands of her one-and-a-half-year-old daughter, Amcy.

Staff members at the Center for Environmental Health (CEH) checked the plastic toys for lead. The tests came up negative.

Josephina Cornejo, community development specialist for the Alameda County Lead Poisoning Prevention Program, told Garcia that exposure to lead affects how children grow and learn. Cornejo said that speaking to mostly monolingual Spanish-speaking mothers like Garcia at the event made her realize how important continued education is in this community, because they are not informed.

Exposure to lead, a highly toxic metal, can have serious health effects in adults and children. Children with high blood-lead levels can suffer from damage to the brain and nervous system, behavior and learning problems, such as hyperactivity, slowed growth, hearing problems and headaches.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that there are 310,000 children with high levels of lead in their bodies. Cornejo said the primary exposure to lead in children in the United States is through lead-based paint, but lead is also showing up in many products, such as toys, jewelry and zippers, much to the alarm of parents.

Garcia, whose childrens toys checked out as lead-free, tucked the items away in a pouch on a stroller with a look of relief. "I'm happy to know the toys were tested and that there's no lead," she said in Spanish. "I'm very concerned about [lead in the toys]. My kids put everything in their mouths.

CEHs Research Director Caroline Cox said that lead poisoning is preventable. Theres no reason why lead needs to be added to childrens products, she said. Its important to offer parents the opportunity to get toys checked if they want to.

Aside from Thursdays toy testing event, the Oakland-based CEH will hold nine more throughout the East Bay, including neighborhoods with large concentrations of communities of color. On Dec. 20, the city of Los Angeles will hold similar toy testing and lead poisoning awareness events.

The toy testing events throughout neighborhoods in the San Francisco Bay Area and Los Angeles were funded through a $1.5 million settlement this month by toymakers, including Mattel and its subsidiary Fisher-Price, RC2, A&A Global Industries and Marvel Entertainment, over lead-contaminated toys and children's products. The state Attorney General's office and the Los Angeles City Attorney's office sued 17 toymakers and retailers last November.

Part of the settlement money goes to the state and a portion goes to outreach projects like this one, Cox said. She said the holiday shopping season is a good time to educate community members about lead-tainted children's products.

Public outrage over recalls of lead-contaminated toys prompted several retailers to pledge to test children's merchandise for lead and other toxic chemicals. This effort has helped decrease the number of lead-tainted toys on store shelves.

"The good news is that there's not nearly as much children's products with lead out there. The bad news is there's still lead out there," Cox said.

Last year, CEH bought and tested about 200 products from major retailers and found that about 10 percent of the items contained lead. This year, out of 200 products tested in the last month, the center found about four children's items containing lead.

CEH checks toys and other children's products using an x-ray fluorescence analyzer, which resembles a scanner gun used by retail check-out clerks. The gun, which costs $35,000, can detect levels of heavy metals such as lead, and displays a concentration in parts per million. Several children's products tested Thursday, including backpacks, toy baseball bats and purses, contained lead at levels as much as three to four times higher than the new federal safety limit.

New federal standards on lead levels in products intended for children 12 years and under take effect in February 2009. Under the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act of 2008, Cox said, any children's product sold in the United States after February cannot contain more than 600 parts per million (ppm) of lead. By 2011, the rule would lower the lead content level in children's products to 100 ppm.

The legislation was signed into law amid intense political pressure after the recall of 45 million lead-laced toys last holiday season. The regulations also ban the use of phthalates, a chemical used to make plastic pliable, in children's products.

Not all retailers test their merchandise for lead, such as flea markets, discount or dollar stores and mom-and-pop vendors. Lead poisoning specialist Cornejo also advises against buying used children's products, because it's hard for parents to know where the items came from.

Lead poisoning is determined through a blood test. In California, a person with blood-lead levels of 10 micrograms per decimeter or above is considered to have lead poisoning. A blood-lead level of 40 micrograms per decimeter can trigger seizures in children. Today, Cornejo said, health officials understand that there's "no safe level" of lead exposure in children.

In adults, a high level of lead in the body causes reproductive problems in men and women, high blood pressure and hypertension, nerve disorders, memory and concentration problems, and muscle and joint pain. Pregnant women also have cause for concern, because lead exposure can harm the fetus, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Thursday, Paw Boh and her friend were pushing strollers in the shopping area when they were approached by staff of CEH, who asked if they wanted to test their toddlers' backpacks. The women, who had just bought Asian vegetables in an open-air market, looked a bit bewildered by the question, but agreed to have the items tested. The backpack belonging to Boh's friend's granddaughter contained no lead, but Boh's son's backpack showed lead levels higher than federal safety standards.

Cornejo told Boh that CEH wanted to "buy" the backpack, with funds from the toymakers settlement with the state. They paid Boh $15 in cash the amount she said she paid for it so the mother could buy a lead-free backpack for her son. Her 4-year-old son, Mathew, the owner of the lead-tainted Spiderman backpack, didn't want to give it up, but eventually he let go and smiled after his mother told him he 'd be getting a new one.

The Center for Environmental Health will hold toy testing clinics throughout the East Bay. For more information, go here.

In Los Angeles, the City Attorney's Office will hold a Lead Toy Exchange at four locations throughout the city on Saturday, Dec. 20. For more information, go here.

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