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Toy recalls prompt a sharp rise in tests of children for lead exposure

August 20, 2007|Mary Engel | Times Staff Writer

Worried parents have been rushing to pediatricians to have their children tested for lead exposure in the wake of back-to-back recalls of Chinese-made toys and now vinyl baby bibs that could contain the toxic metal.

In the two weeks since Mattel Inc. began recalling millions of its toys because of concerns over lead paint, Childrens Hospital Los Angeles has seen a 25% increase in tests, said Dr. Robert Adler, vice chairman of the hospital's pediatrics departments.

The number of worried parents is likely to increase. Toys R Us announced Friday that it was pulling all vinyl baby bibs from store shelves after laboratory tests found lead that exceeded the retailer's standards in two bibs made in China by Hamco Inc.

It is too early to detect any pattern in test results, Adler said. But he and other experts said that aside from swallowing a toy or a scrap of vinyl bib, the biggest risk for lead lies in chipped paint or dust stirred up by remodeling in homes built before 1978, when the United States banned the metal in paint.

"One exposure is not going to do harm," Adler said. "But the concern is if they are getting lead from multiple sources. We do find a lot more kids than we suspected have been exposed to lead in the household, mostly through old paint."

In adults, elevated lead levels can cause such problems as high blood pressure, memory lapses and miscarriages. But lead's effect on children is of particular concern because of its profound effect on the developing brain, leading to reductions in IQ, attention deficit and behavioral problems.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends screening children for lead risks at age 1 and again at age 2, said Dr. Chris Tolcher, a spokesman for the group and a pediatrician in West Hills. Usually that means asking about the age of the house and whether renovation may have left a lead residue in carpeting, where youngsters crawl.

"Handling and mouthing a toy is probably not a high risk," said Tolcher, who stopped short of calling the increase in calls to his office a panic. "But the only way to reassure a parent completely is to check the blood level."

The test measures lead in a blood sample drawn from a finger, heel or vein. Any amount greater than 9 micrograms per deciliter is considered unsafe, according to guidelines set by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Some new studies suggest that there is no safe level of lead, and that reading and math skills decline at levels as low as 2.5 micrograms per deciliter. Very high levels, although rare, can lead to mental retardation or even coma and death.

In 2006, a 4-year-old Minneapolis boy died of lead poisoning after swallowing a heart-shaped charm that contained lead. "We've started to tell parents of kids under [age] 6 to avoid all metal jewelry," said Charles Margulis of the Center for Environmental Health, an Oakland nonprofit that has been crusading against lead in children's products for 10 years.

The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, which oversees product recalls, does not consider vinyl bibs a hazard unless they are so worn that an infant can swallow a piece that contains lead. It issued an advisory to that effect in May.

In a company news release, Toys R Us said that it was removing vinyl bibs "as a precautionary measure." The bibs were marketed under the Koala Baby, Especially for Baby and Disney Baby labels, but customers can return any vinyl bib purchased from a Toys R Us or Babies R Us store for a full refund.

In Los Angeles County, about 1,200 children younger than 6 are diagnosed each year with elevated lead levels.

The source of the lead in almost 70% of the cases, from 2000 through 2005, was lead-based paint, according to a county public health survey.

Toys, jewelry or other trinkets were the source of lead in fewer than 2% of the cases, said county epidemiologist Joan Chen. That percentage could be higher, she added, because the study didn't identify sources for all cases.

Chen said that she buys the "cheap, 99-cent toys" for her own children, who are 3 and 5.

"I really never thought it was a concern, unless you really chew on those things a lot," she said.

For Simi Valley mother Laura Wade, it is a concern. She plans to have daughters Madison, 6, and Jessica, 2, tested after learning that four of their toys were among those recalled by Mattel.

Wade has sequestered the toys and, at her pediatrician's suggestion, plans to check them for signs of chipped paint.

The recalls have left her not knowing what's safe to buy for her girls.

"I've thought about this," she said, "and I don't have an answer."

--

mary.engel@latimes.com

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