August 2, 2007 The Pump Handle 0Comment

By Harrison Newton, National Nursing Centers Consortium (Lead Safe DC)

The recent recall of top-selling toys made by Mattel Inc. because they “could” contain the neurotoxin lead should cause government, academia and the public to consider why we are still allowing lead to harm our communities. Can’t we do better?

Of course we can, and the industries that have spent the last 100 years pushing lead into our homes could be doing a lot more to help. In the Washington D.C. area, hundreds of children this year will suffer the effects of lead, which has been proven to decrease IQ, ability to concentrate, and to cause behavioral problems. Overall lead levels decreased after lead was removed from gasoline in the 1970s, but millions of children are still exposed to lead, largely through lead paint – which is no longer used in the U.S., but is present in older housing and used in many of the countries where our goods are manufactured.
Certainly, no back-pats should be administered over the Consumer Product Safety Commission’s nationwide recall of “Sesame Street” and “Dora the Explorer” toys – because past experience suggests it won’t go far enough to solve the problem.

Studies of the agency’s recall (see here and here) success suggest that in the late 1990s, around 20 percent of recalled items were actually returned. How many of the remaining 80 percent of these toys will find their way into daycare centers, homes and schools? Science tells us that lead doesn’t simply disappear. It’s possible, even likely, that these toys will be more dangerous in five years than they are today because of the wear and tear that will allow the lead paint to deteriorate.

And the problem is even more complex than that. Because the impact of lead is cumulative, a child receiving a small dose of lead because of lead dust in his or her home may have his or her condition significantly worsened after exposure to a toy containing lead.

Certainly part of the solution must include tightening federal regulations on imports, especially those aimed at children, and reforming the way imported products are tested. But aside from the battle over policy and regulation, there are other pathways toward protecting our kids.

Outreach efforts like Lead Safe D.C. work with families daily to educate them about lead, test their homes and track their children to ensure they are screened for lead poisoning. We encourage parents to know where their children’s toys and crayons were manufactured.

There’s also a role for companies that make and sell lead-containing products. Mattel apparently had a program to ensure that overseas vendors use lead-free paint; they’re looking at ways to strengthen those safeguards, but they could take other steps to fight childhood lead poisoning, too? What if companies like Mattel took opportunities like this week to support efforts to reduce the impact of lead on our children? What if the paint industry, which is responsible for much of the lead poisoning that occurs today, gave substantive support to the programs working to identify homes with lead hazards?

Industry doesn’t always have to react as though environmental health advocates were the enemy. Partnership is and always has been one of the best approaches to bettering outcomes for our communities.

Harrison Newton is the program director of Lead Safe DC, non-profit outreach, education and environmental testing program aimed at preventing childhood lead poisoning in Washington D.C.

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