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Toys That Kill: Putting Lead in Spotlight

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The headline on the cover of London’s Times today read : “Warning 2 Million Toys at Home Can Kill.”


Now if that doesn’t get the attention of parents worldwide, I don’t know what will. As all of you are likely aware by now, two weeks after a large recall of Fisher-Price toys, yesterday Mattel announced an even larger recall: two million toys from seventy-one types including Barbie doll accessories and Batman action figures. The fear is over loose magnets and high levels of lead in the paint used on these products.


In recent years, lead has started to garner more attention. Back in 2003, I wrote a cover article for FitPregnancy magazine about the effects of lead on the fetus and baby. While doing research for this article, I was shocked by how many parents and pediatricians brushed off my questions or poo-poo’d the dangers of lead. In fact, two pediatricians told me and my friend that we didn’t need to worry about lead poisoning in our children because “we didn’t fit the demographic.” By that, they both meant that we didn’t live in poor housing with chipped paint. They weren’t worried about the fact that we both lived in homes built in the 1930s and 1940s—back when lead was used in all paint. We were both planning to renovate and that meant lead dust could be released with each sanding, stripping, replacing of windowsills, or removing of cabinets. I was surprised to learn how little pediatricians, contractors, and parents understood about lead and its effects on children.


Now, we see that companies like Mattel didn’t require or test their products manufactured from China for lead. One might think that the Consumer Product Safety Commission would have a hand in this. But in the end, it’s up to companies to better manage the safety of the toys they manufacture and sell. I have to admit that the past month has made me dizzy with Chinese product recalls from toothpaste to pet food to toys. (See related Chit Chat.) This morning, I frantically remembered my son’s toddler days when he played, not only with plastic Fisher-Price Elmo toys, but also Thomas the Train sets. In fact, we still have more tracks and trains than a five-year-old should legally be allowed to own. Now, he’s into Batman—and I need to test all his plastic Batman figures.


Yesterday’s recall really was the final straw in my comfort zone. According to newspaper reports, Mattel is recalling 18.2 million magnetic toys and 436,000 painted toys globally. The toys, sold between January 2002 and January 2007, contain parts that can be fatal if swallowed. The magnetic toys are an immediate danger because if a child swallows a magnet, or especially more than one, there is a high risk of them getting stuck together in the gut and requiring surgery. The Times reported that three American children suffered intestinal perforations after swallowing magnets—one child died.


Some of the toys recalled are Polly Pocket play sets and Batman One Piece Magnetic Action Figure Sets as well as Barbie and Tanner Magnetic toys. For a complete list and pictures, go to the Consumer Product Safety Commission or call the CPSC Recall Hotline: (800) 638-2772.


You Suspect Your Child Ingested Lead—What Now?


If you are concerned that your child has been chewing on toys with lead—such as the Fisher-Price saxophones or toy phones that toddlers love to put in their mouths—ask your pediatrician to test your child’s blood level. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) says that blood levels of 10 micrograms per deciliter or less is safe. Experts warn that any blood lead levels higher than 3 mcg/dl is a concern. I tested my son’s level when he was fifteen months old and sadly, he did have a low level of lead poisoning and who knows how he got it. The good news is that for low levels, eating calcium-rich foods is the key. Lead binds to calcium and can be removed from the body that way. In fact, diets rich in iron, calcium, zinc, and protein are recommended by Herbert Needleman, MD, a child psychiatry and pediatrics professor at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, whose research and lobbying convinced the federal government to ban leaded gasoline in the 1970s.


The CDC, still using the same figures I quoted four years ago, claims that only 310,000 U.S. children ages one to five have high levels of lead in their blood. It said the major source of lead exposure among children is lead-based paint and lead-contaminated dust in deteriorating buildings, not ingesting paint from toys—or from breathing in lead dust during home renovations. Sadly, experts whom I’ve interviewed in the past don’t think the CDC numbers are an accurate reflection of childhood lead poisoning as so few pediatricians actually test their patients for lead. In fact, it’s up to parents to ask for the test, as typically, only some HMOs regularly test for lead since the stereotype of poor children living in substandard housing is the culprit. Now, we know differently.


Several studies show that levels as low as 5 mcg/dl can contribute to growth retardation, learning disabilities, hyperactivity and attention-deficit disorders, and aggression. They also show that very high levels can cause permanent brain damage or death—just another reason to ensure your child eats a healthy diet high in calcium.


The best thing we as parents can do, however, is not panic. Here are some easy steps you can take to protect your children from lead:


  • Buy lead testing kits online or buy testing sticks in the paint department of Home Depot or Lowes. Test toys at home that you are concerned about, as well as any surface your young child hangs out in—window sills for instance.


  • Get your child’s blood level tested at your pediatrician’s office. If it is higher than 10 mcg/dl, you will receive helpful literature. You may need future testing and possible chelation therapy for very high levels


  • Ensure your children eat healthy diets full of calcium, zinc, iron, and protein.


  • Hire lead abatement specialists to work with your contractors when renovating and move out while the renovation takes place—especially if you are pregnant or have young children.


  • Test your water for lead—call your water department as they do this for free.


  • Run cold water for fifteen seconds before drinking it or pouring into a filter pitcher as lead often leaches from pipes and runs in hot water.




Just remember, back in the ’70s we were all breathing in gasoline fumes chock full of lead. Babies from the ’50s through the ’70s were likely chewing on windowsills, wood toys, blocks, metal cars, or handle bars in playgrounds painted with lead paint as well. We are moving forward—even if, for the moment, it feels like backward.


 

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