Junkfood Science: Toxic toys

September 01, 2007

Toxic toys

Many parents have become alarmed that their children may have been harmed by lead in toys imported from China. Brendan O’Neill at Spiked offers some calming perspectives that may be of help to parents. His lengthy article begins:

Toxic toys: is China poisoning YOUR child?

If you’ve been following the frenzied public debate about the recall of dodgy Chinese products from superstore shelves in the US and the UK, you might be forgiven for thinking so. The voluntary withdrawal of 19 million ‘Made in China’ products by the toy giant Mattel, alongside claims that Chinese toxic toothpaste and poisonous pet food is on sale in the West, has given rise to headlines such as ‘Lethal toy story’, ‘The toxic threat’ and ‘China’s toxic shock’, as if Chinese factories are pumping out a dirty slick of consumer stuff that is spreading across the West. Is China making us sick?

Look behind the headlines and it seems that, yes, some toys and various other products from China fall short of tough Western safety standards, but they are far from lethal. They’re not even particularly toxic... Yet as Mattel itself said, the recall was voluntary and ‘no cases of any harm to children have been reported’ (1). Furthermore, it is generally safe for children to play with toys that contain lead-based paint. As an expert toxicologist in Canada pointed out - in an attempt to calm Canadian parents who, in the wake of the recall, were rushing to their local doctors to see if their children were toy-poisoned - ‘holding a toy in one’s hands or pushing a toy truck contaminated with lead poses no risk.’...

A guide to ‘dangerous toys’ in Time magazine pointed out that ‘lead can’t be inhaled or absorbed through the skin, so a child would have to chew the paint off a toy and eat a significant amount of it before getting sick.’ The driving force behind the lead-painted toy recall is not so much hard evidence that Chinese toys are a threat to Western children, but rather Western fears - and often irrational ones at that - of lead poisoning.... the question of what constitutes ‘lead poisoning’ has changed dramatically in recent decades. Today, the US Centers for Disease Control define lead poisoning in children as a level above 10 micrograms per millilitre in the body; in 1990, that same amount was described only as a ‘level of concern’. Thirty years ago, before the US banned lead from house paint and gasoline, lead concentrations in the body of 80 micrograms per millilitre were considered safe. As one American newspaper columnist pointed out, that earlier high level of acceptable lead ‘did not produce a generation of cretins.’ Today, a child could probably swallow a couple of Beijing-made toys and still only have a level of lead in his body that was considered ‘safe’ for his parents’ generation.... [His full article can be read here.]

A few additional tidbits:

Not only have the cut-offs for “high” lead exposures been lowered, but the actual exposures have dropped considerably, too. The CDC has followed lead levels in children for decades, due to concerns lead adversely affects the cognitive development of young children, and has reported that average blood lead levels in children have “decreased approximately 80% since the late 1970s.” The proportion of children with elevated levels has also decreased.

In recent decades, exposure to lead has greatly decreased with the reduced use of lead in products, such as cookware, dishes, plumbing, coins and leaded gasoline with dawn of catalytic converters. A 25-year phase out of leaded gasoline reached its goal in 1995, according to the FDA. Lead was also banned from house paint in 1978 and food canners in the U.S. also stopped using lead solder in 1991. The FDA's 1994-1996 Total Diet Studies showed that, since 1982-1984, daily intakes of lead from food among 2-5 year olds had dropped 96 percent (to a mere 1.3 micrograms/day) and among adults by nearly 93 percent.

Attentions were then focused on the paint in older houses in urban developments, but in 2005 it was discovered that lead levels in urban children weren’t higher during the winter when they were cooped up inside, but in the summer when they were playing outside. Dust and dirt appears to be the primary cause of lead exposure today. Does that mean that kids who grew up in the 1950s to 1970s, playing outside and exposed to far more lead in their food and surroundings, were dumber and more mentally handicapped than kids today? That idea could be vigorously debated. :-)

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