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Toxic Kids – Part One

by Marcia Zimmerman, August 22, 2011

Toys are serious business especially around the holidays. The 2007 discovery that lead contamination in toys appears to be widespread had parents and grandparents in a panic. Some of the most trusted names in the toy business have had to recall long standing favorites. Fisher-Price alone recalled 967,000 toys. That got everyone’s attention! It seems the availability of less expensive plastic toys made outside the United States may not be such a bargain after all. Parents are turning increasingly to wooden toys stained with vegetable dyes – the old fashioned – and more expensive way.

Lead has gotten most press exposure, but knowledgeable parents have been trying to avoid pthalates – a chemical used to make toys, bottles, and baby equipment soft and pliable. Pthalates and other toxins will be the subject of Toxic Kids parts II and III. Now let’s focus on lead, its sources (not just toys), health effects, testing, and what you can do about it.

Sources of Lead The December 2007 of Consumer Reports found lead in a wide variety of everyday items they tested. Included were dishware, jewelry, glue stick caps, vinyl backpacks, vinyl lunchboxes, children’s ceramic tea sets, vinyl mini blinds, brass keys, baby bibs, clothing, crayons, chalk, and the blood pressure cuff in Fisher-Price toy medical kits. It’s a fairly safe hypothesis that brightly colored items made off shore will likely contain lead, which is an inexpensive fixative for pigment.

Other household items not normally associated with toys are made with lead because of its malleable and stabilizing qualities. It’s surface lead that is of particular concern, because it can be released easily through contact. Brass keys may contain surface lead and are often given to tots as a diversion. Anything a young child mouths or handles frequently and that contains lead, is a cause for concern. Inexpensive jewelry imported from China can contain 90 percent lead, according to Consumer Reports. Vinyl mini-blinds contribute more to longer term exposure because sunlight releases surface lead.

Environmental waste and use of lead additives is a significant source of contamination in the United States. Until 1979 lead was an allowable additive in house paint and until 1986 in gasoline. Lead is still approved for industrial use and in the military. Lead never deteriorates and never disappears. Dumping and recycling of batteries has become a greater concern with the widespread use of battery operated toys, electronics boards, and other common items. Toxic dump sites have posed a significant exposure as urban areas have encroached on areas that were out in the boonies just a few years ago.

Military base closure has saved taxpayer dollars, but the former bases contain high levels of lead and other contaminants, necessitating diversion of tax dollars for clean-up. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) suggests that the primary sources of lead exposure for most children are:

deteriorating lead-based paint lead contaminated dust lead contaminated residential soil Lead in these sources can be inhaled and ingested from food and beverages, leading to significant health hazards in adults as well as children. Drinking water may contain lead if lead solder or lead parts in plumbing have been used. You cannot see, smell or taste lead. It’s an insidious toxin and we can’t get rid of it.

Health Effects of Lead The EPA warns that lead poisoning in children remains a major environmental health problem in the U.S. Children who otherwise appear healthy can have dangerous levels of lead in their bodies. Lead is a powerful neurotoxin, which is at the root of most health effects. In children these are:

damage to brain and nervous system behavior and learning problems (such as hyperactivity) slowed growth hearing problems headaches Adults who have lead poisoning may have:

difficulty during pregnancy (lead toxicity in mothers is high risk for the unborn) reproductive problems in both men and women high blood pressure digestive problems nerve disorders memory and concentration problems muscle and joint pain (other toxic metals including mercury can also cause this) If you suspect your child has been exposed to lead, you should have the child tested. The EPA recommends that all children be tested at ages 1 and 2. Pediatricians may also suggest that children under the age of six be tested every year. Children younger than six are at the greatest risk because their bodies are growing so fast. While kids have the highest short term exposure to lead, adults accumulate it from lifetime exposure or the workplace.

Testing for Lead The Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) staff evaluated lead testing kits for the home and its contents. Two types of home test kits are available and both use color (colorimetric) to indicate lead’s presence. CPSC cautions that home test kits may not provide the most definitive results and that more accurate results can be obtained with laboratory testing that utilizes X-ray fluorescence spectrometry (XRF). Home testing gives parents a good screening tool because kits detect surface lead, the most likely source of contamination in children. Consumer Reports suggests the following test kits. They are available at local hardware stores or on the Internet (Amazon or Google Products)

Homax Lead Check Tester (8.69 SRP) Household Lead Test Kit ($21.00, pack of 3) Abotex Lead Inspector Test Kit ($12.99) First Alert Premium Home Lead Test Kit ($13.00 SRP; $7.00 online) Pro-Lab Lead Surface ($10.00 SRP, $4.00 online) Consumer Reports suggest you eliminate any items that test positive and use professional testing for more accurate results. XFR also detects imbedded lead, which is not detectable with home test kits.

What You Can Do According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), “significant exposure to lead is a preventable environmental threat to optimal health and developmental outcomes for young children.” They recommend screening the child’s blood for toxic levels of lead, particularly if a sibling or playmate is toxic. A list of personal risk factors that suggest the possibility of lead toxicity is given in the AAP citation below, which is available on the Internet. An elevated lead level according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) is ≥10mcg/dL of blood. Taking preventive measures to reduce environmental sources of contamination is another important step.

AAP recommends nutritional supplements of calcium and iron given to toxic children act as a preventive against lead buildup and help reduce body burden. Lead is a specific inhibitor of calcium and replaces it in bone. Both calcium and iron can reduce the storage of lead in tissues.

A news release published by the University of California, San Francisco discloses that low levels of vitamin C are found in those who are lead toxic. Coauthors Drs. Joel Simon M.D. and Esther S. Hudes, Ph.D., suggest increasing the amount of fresh fruits and vegetables consumed every day because of their vitamin C content. Nutritionists have long suggested that vitamin C, flavonoids and other phytochemicals found in fruits and vegetables are mild chelating agents. This means that they are effective in harnessing lead and escorting it out of the body. The UCSF doctors also suggest a multiple vitamin with C or an additional vitamin C supplement as “insurance policy.”