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An unsavory addition to kids' lunchboxes: lead

High levels of the toxic mineral have been found in some products made of soft vinyl.

September 12, 2005|Shari Roan | Times Staff Writer

Along with peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and juice boxes, some schoolchildren may be carrying something unexpected -- and potentially hazardous -- in their lunchboxes this fall.

A study by an Oakland-based environmental group found harmful levels of lead in some lunchboxes made of soft vinyl. The Center for Environmental Health filed lawsuits late last month against several lunchbox manufacturers and various retailers who sell the products.

The environmental group found that 27 lunchboxes -- one-quarter of the products tested -- had high levels of lead when tested with an at-home detection kit. The group then sent those 27 products to an independent laboratory for more rigorous testing; that study found that 17 of the lunchboxes contained lead in excess of federal safety standards.

One lunchbox, made by Targus Group International Inc. and featuring the children's character Angela Anaconda, was found to contain more than 90 times the legal limit for lead in paint in children's products. The Center for Environmental Health has advised parents to avoid vinyl lunchboxes or to purchase a home test kit to check for lead. Such kits sell for about $3 and can be found on the Internet and in hardware stores.

Michael V. Ward, vice president and general counsel for Targus, said last week that the Anaheim-based company had only recently become aware of the potential hazard and was checking with its supplier to determine if the product was tested for lead.

"I'm not certain it does or doesn't contain lead," Ward said of the lunchboxes.

Lara Cushing, research director for the Center for Environmental Health, said the study found the lead was not contained within the vinyl material itself but rather on the surface of the lunchboxes.

"It's not bound up in the plastic," she said. "It's sloughing off. It can come off on your hand. It can rub off on your food."

The Oakland environmental group in recent years has reported on studies that found unsafe levels of lead in some imported Mexican candies and in children's jewelry. The private, nonprofit group specializes in identifying hazardous sources of lead in the environment.

Lead is considered unsafe at any level. Even small amounts can build up in the body and cause lifelong problems, according to the California Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention Branch.

Fetuses and children younger than 6 are at greatest risk for lead poisoning because their brains and nervous systems are still forming.

Lead poisoning can result in anemia and problems in learning and behavior. Very high levels can damage the nervous system, kidneys and major organs and can even result in seizures or death. Children with very high levels require treatments to remove the lead. For children with lower levels, authorities recommend finding the source of the lead and removing it to prevent further exposure.

"The more we study lead, the more effects we find at smaller and smaller doses," said Dr. Herbert L. Needleman, a professor of psychiatry and pediatrics at the University of Pittsburgh.

The major sources of lead poisoning in the United States have been lead-based paint, which was restricted in 1978, and leaded gasoline, which was phased out in the early 1990s. However, lead is still found in paint manufactured before 1978; in soil and dust (particularly next to busy roads or factories); in some imported or handmade pottery and tableware; and in imported home remedies and cosmetics.

Last year California's attorney general sued dozens of companies that make or sell imported candies containing lead. Manufacturers looking for low-cost materials may either knowingly or inadvertently use products that contain hazardous amounts of accessible lead, said Dr. Bruce P. Lanphear, a professor of pediatrics at Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center. Typically, testing for lead requires an extra step in the manufacturing process that some companies may choose to skip.

"It's to be expected, depending on how vigilant we are, that lead from a variety of sources would creep into other products," said Lanphear.

Officials for the Consumer Product Safety Commission said last week that the agency was investigating the Center for Environmental Health's findings on lead in lunchboxes. A spokesperson for the California Department of Health Services also said the agency was aware of the lunchbox study and is looking into the findings.

Other lunchboxes found high in lead featured characters such as Superman, Tweety Bird, the Powerpuff Girls and Hamtaro. The Center for Environmental Health has displayed photos of the lunchboxes on its website, www.cehca.org.

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