Question of the Week

November 06, 2006

For many people, when they think of environmental "lead poisoning" they think of small children in older buildings with peeling or chipping lead-based paint. In some cases, these people are correct...

"Research suggests that the primary sources of lead exposure for most children are:
- deteriorating lead-based paint,
- lead contaminated dust, and
- lead contaminated residential soil."

Beyond the paint (and the dust and soil that the paint has contaminated), there are other sources of lead that are making it into the hands (and mouths) of children.

"Public health officials in the Oregon Department of Human Services are alerting parents that bendable toys given to children as summer reading program incentives pose a potential health hazard. The toys are a bendable dog and cat, each about 4 inches long, given to children by public libraries. ... 'These toys are a potential health hazard and children should not be handling them,' said Leiker. 'A particular concern is that because of the toys’ small size and shape, children may put them in their mouths and suck or chew on them.' If parents have seen a child chewing or sucking on one of the toys, Leiker advises they contact their health care provider and arrange for a test to determine lead level in blood. Leiker also recommended that if parents discover these toys in their home, they either return them to their local library or dispose of them in the household trash."

While this report is from the Oregon Department of Human Services, this recall affected libraries across the country this past summer (2006). Unfortunately, the above report offers offers just one example, not an isolated incident. Another recall provides an example of a product that can end up in the hands and mouths of fidgety children and teens: jewelry.

"The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, in cooperation with the firm named below, today announced a voluntary recall of the following consumer product. Consumers should stop using recalled products immediately unless otherwise instructed.
Name of Product: American Girl Children’s Jewelry ...
Hazard: The recalled jewelry contains high levels of lead. Lead is toxic if ingested by young children and can cause adverse health effects.
Description: The recall includes American Girl necklaces, bracelets, earrings and hair accessories for girls. ...
Remedy: Consumers should immediately take recalled jewelry away from children and return the items for a full refund..."

While older children and teens are less likely to put toys in their mouths, it is important to be sure that the products they are handling are free from lead, especially when they are about to eat, or when that product might come into contact with their food.

"Recent reports of high lead levels in certain soft vinyl lunchboxes manufactured in China has prompted the Washington State Department of Ecology (Ecology) to ask retailers to immediately pull those lunchboxes from store shelves while the agency collects independent testing data. Tests conducted by the state of New York and California's Center for Environmental Health on the soft vinyl surface of some lunchboxes show high levels of lead. State officials are concerned that children might swallow lead that has rubbed off onto their food or hands, exposing them to unacceptable levels of lead. The Washington Retail Association is supportive of the action requested by Ecology. Lead can be used as a stabilizer in vinyl products, but studies have shown that lead in soft vinyl lunchboxes does not stay bound to the vinyl. Lead is a toxic material and lead exposure can cause serious health and developmental problems for young children. It's important to limit kids' exposure to all sources of lead."

Beyond the possibility of exposure to lead that has "rubbed off onto their food or hands," there is also the concern of lead in food. From time to time there are alerts about high lead levels found in candy that has been imported for sale in the United States. One organic chocolate producer based in Oregon recently recalled some of its products after they were shown to have lead levels above what is considered acceptable. Their website explains how high levels of lead were able to make it into the product, and what steps they are now taking to prevent it from happening again.

"After working with the FDA [Food and Drug Administration] and our suppliers, we determined that the lead got into the cacao mass used in the recalled chocolate products at the facility where cacao beans were processed. The FDA inspected our own manufacturing facility, and verified that lead is not a factor. All other products, which are made with a different source of cacao, showed test results that meet FDA guidelines. This helped us isolate the problem to one kind of cacao from one supplier. Our founder visited the cacao supplier to pinpoint the source of the lead, by inspecting each step from the farm to the processing facility. Tests on the cacao beans showed lead levels well below FDA guideline, which verified us that that the lead was not coming from the farms or soil, but was isolated to the processing facility. To ensure that this problem does not happen again, we have ceased working with the processing facility involved. In addition, we will continue rigorous routine testing on all raw materials and finished products so we can ensure that you receive the high quality, healthful products you have come to expect from us."

Lead is present in the environment, and often unavoidable. For that reason, consumers and manufacturers need to do what they can to reduce the levels of lead in their environment that they can control. Why?

"Exposure to lead causes a wide range of health effects, and one of the interesting things about lead is that those health effects vary from child to child. ... More than ten years ago, the National Academy of Sciences wrote that 'There is growing evidence that even very small exposures to lead can produce subtle effects in humans [.and] that future guidelines may drop below 10µg/dL as the mechanisms of lead toxicity become better understood.'  As it turns out, today there is widespread recognition of the fact that there is no such thing as a 'safe' level of lead exposure."

"* If not detected early, children with high levels of lead
in their bodies can suffer from: 
-    Damage to the brain and nervous system 
-    Behavior and learning problems (such as hyperactivity) 
-    Slowed growth
-    Hearing problems
-    Headaches 
* Lead is also harmful to adults. Adults can suffer from: 
-    Difficulties during pregnancy
-    Other reproductive problems (in both men and women) 
-    High blood pressure
-    Digestive problems
-    Nerve disorders
-    Memory and concentration problems
-    Muscle and joint pain"

"Lead poisoning has been associated with a significantly increased high-school dropout rate, as well as increases in juvenile delinquency and criminal behavior. It is often difficult for a parent to realize on their own that their child may have too much lead in their blood. The symptoms of lead poisoning can be subtle--they are often easily confused with other, less worrisome problems. For instance, a child may exhibit symptoms similar to those associated with the flu, such as stomach aches and headaches. Other typical symptoms include irritability and loss of appetite. The bottom line is: the only way to know for sure whether or not a child has a lead-related problem is to get the child tested for lead."

Questions of the Week:
What do you, your peers, and your family members need to know about the hazards and side-effects of exposure to too much lead? What do you and your peers need to know about possible sources of lead? Where would you look to find information about lead-related recalls for products available in your area? What would you need to know as a parent, babysitter, and/ or older sibling to help protect the child(ren) in your life from avoidable lead sources? What do the younger children in your life need to know about the hazards of lead? How would you educate them? How would your reach your peers with this same information? How would you reach your parents and/ or other adults?

Please email me with any ideas or suggestions.
Note: Due to increasing amounts of SPAM sent to this account, please include "QOW" in the subject line when sending me email.

I look forward to reading what you have to say.

Health Community Coordinator
Access Excellence @ the National Health Museum

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