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June 27, 2007

Interview: Lead in Toys Poses Health Risk

In June, the U.S. Consumer Products Safety Commission and the RC2 Corp. announced a voluntary recall of several toy trains, vehicles and play sets from the top-selling Thomas & Friends™ Wooden Railway collection. The recalled toys contain lead paint, which could be hazardous to children.

To learn more about the potential risk to children from lead exposure, the Office of Communications and Public Affairs spoke with Lynn Goldman, MD, MPH, a pediatrician and professor in Environmental Health Sciences at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. Goldman was also assistant administrator for toxic substances at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) from 1993-1998.

Question: The current recall includes 1.5 million wooden toy trains and accessories sold over the past two and one-half years. What is the risk for children who may have played with these toys?

Answer: They can be very risky, or not, depending on the child’s behavior. If you have a child who frequently “mouths” small objects like toys, maybe chews on them or uses them for teething, the risk will be greater. If you have a child who never does that, then the risk would be zero.

To have lead on toys is a completely unacceptable hazard. It’s normal behavior for young children to explore the world by putting things in their mouth.

Question: What is the health risk for children from lead exposure?

Answer: The most significant risk has to do with developmental delays and the impact of lead on brain development, which occurs with very low levels of exposure.

Lead is also hazardous to adult brains. In fact, there is a lot of research here at Hopkins that’s beginning to show that low levels of lead affect adult brains as well as those of children.

Lead is also toxic to the kidneys and to blood formation. It’s also a carcinogen.

Question: Do you have any advice for parents who may have purchased these toys for their children?

Answer: The first thing parents should do is check to see if the trains they have are subject to the recall. If they are, they should take them away from the children.

There isn’t any way to make these toys safe with a new coat of paint. Any layer of new paint that you put over them may wear down and could expose some other children in the future. The best thing to do is to throw the toys away or return them to the manufacturer for a refund.

Question: Should kids be tested for lead exposure?

Answer: I think they should. I would be particularly concerned that a child be tested who is a “mouther,” a finger-sucker, or a child who frequently is putting toys in the mouth. I would also want to test children under age 4 who have been playing with these toys if it were my child. I think you would want to do that just for peace of mind.

When I was at the EPA, we did an observational study of toddler behavior. We found that toddlers were putting their hands to their mouths anywhere up to 26 times an hour, the mean was 9.5. They are not necessarily sucking their thumbs, but there is a lot of hand-to-mouth behavior. We were surprised by the findings and had to rethink the way we were looking at risks for little kids.

Question: Are there any symptoms of lead exposure that parents should look for?

Answer: Most lead exposure is asymptomatic, which means there are no symptoms at all. Lead can be detected at levels that are hazardous for brain development, but are without overt symptoms.

At higher levels of lead exposure, children can develop stomach aches or other gastrointestinal symptoms, feelings of lethargy, head aches or anemia. But those higher lead levels are pretty unusual.

Question: How serious a problem is lead in children’s toys?

Answer: Lead contamination of imported toys is an emerging issue and has been going on for a long time. We’ve seen lead in colorants used in imported candy from Mexico and in cans of imported juices from countries where they still use lead in the solder. Lead was also detected in children’s jewelry imported from China, which resulted in at least one death.

I think what it comes down to is that we need closer tracking of the products that come into the country. We need to pay attention to and insist on better quality from suppliers in other countries. Even though this has been a problem for some time, it seems to be a more significant problem now because so many products are coming from other countries. Most of the toys sold in U.S. stores today are imported.

We have to realize that we have trading partners that do not have regulatory systems in place that assure product safety. Some rethinking is needed, because only so much can be done in terms of the U.S. testing everything that comes across the border. It’s encouraging when companies step up to the plate. Wal-Mart volunteered to test the jewelry it buys from China to ensure it was lead-safe for kids.

Question: Are there other lead risks for children besides toys?

Answer: The most common lead problem is still lead-based paint, even though it’s no longer used in this country. Homes built prior to a 1978 law may contain lead-based paint. Lead dust is liberated from older lead-based paint when the home has been poorly maintained or when remodeling or demolition is done in the home, such as removing woodwork or walls. Lead dust is a risk for young children and adults. Lead can sometimes be found in the drinking water of older homes that used lead in the plumbing, although this is a less common cause of lead toxicity.

I used to work for the state health department in California. We had a report of a child who was lead-poisoned from a baby monitor. The child had bonded to the baby monitor as his transitional object and carried it around with him all the time and “mouthed” it. Here is a plastic object in the child’s environment that’s not a toy, yet has lead on the surface that is accessible to a small child. My belief is that anything that is designed to be close to or around children should not have lead on the surface or lead that is easily accessible or chewable.

In another case that I saw, a child was poisoned from lead that was used in the solder to connect an ice maker in a refrigerator to the water supply in a house. Just one gob of solder was enough to poison the child since the parents were making drinks for the kids with the water and ice from the refrigerator. It doesn’t take a large amount of lead to cause a problem, and any use around children can cause poisoning.

Lead is very familiar to us and was in use for a long time for many uses. I don’t think we have been sufficiently cautious in excluding it from kids’ environments.—Tim Parsons

Public Affairs media contacts for the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health: Tim Parsons or Kenna Lowe at 410-955-6878 or paffairs@jhsph.edu.