October 11, 2007 The Pump Handle 1Comment

By Liz Borkowski 

Reports of toys and other products containing dangerous levels of lead continue to pour in, with Curious George dolls and lipstick being the latest items to come under scrutiny. Companies and health officials have to decide what to do about products currently on the market, and lawmakers are proposing ways to keep hazardous products off shelves in the first place.

Today, the LA Times’ Marc Lifsher reports that the Center for Environmental Health found more than ten times the legal limit of lead in a Curious George doll and has filed a legal complaint against the Marvel Entertainment company, which markets the toy. The Boston Globe alerts us that tests by the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics found one-third of brand-name lipsticks to contain lead in levels that exceed the federal limit for lead in candy. Reporter John C. Drake turned to an environmental health professor to see how worried lipstick users should be:

The lead levels should not concern healthy women without children in their homes, said Joel Tickner, a professor of environmental health at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell. But use of lead-tainted lipstick by pregnant women could lead to lead exposure for the fetus, and lead exposure for children who use lipstick is also a concern, he said.

“These levels of lead are not likely to cause poisoning,” said Tickner, a specialist on exposure to toxic chemicals. “They are likely to be cumulative to other exposures and can cause subtle neurological effects you can’t trace back to a single exposure.”

We may not see a widespread disposal of lipsticks, but many concerned parents are culling their children’s toy collections. This brings up another concern, which Abigail Goldman and Marc Lifsher highlighted in an LA Times article earlier this week: Items containing unsafe levels of lead need to be disposed of somehow, and improper disposal could contaminate landfills and groundwater. Manufacturers are bound by state and federal laws that regulate waste disposal, but only a small percentage of recalled items tend to get returned to manufacturers during recalls.

Last week, Representative Henry Waxman (with three other Representatives) and Senator Barack Obama introduced bills that would ban lead from toys, toy jewelry, and other products used by children under age six. Senator Mark Pryor has introduced a bill that, in addition to banning lead from children’s products, would give the Consumer Product Safety Commission more money (including $20 million to upgrade its testing facility) and more authority over recalls. Acting CPSC chair Nancy Nord opposes Pryor’s legislation. The Washington Post’s Annys Shin reports:

One of the most contentious provisions in Pryor’s bill would let the CPSC disclose information about a potential product hazard if there is an imminent or substantial product hazard or if the agency believes a company has violated the Consumer Product Safety Act. Currently, manufacturers have to approve information the agency releases about their products and can challenge any disclosures in court.

Nord said if the agency cannot assure manufacturers of confidentiality, companies will be less likely to report problems, even though they are obligated to by law. “It will make it more difficult to obtain the useful information we need to assess risks,” Nord told lawmakers.

Manufacturers agree with Nord. “A huge barrier would be placed in the way of manufacturer and retailer cooperation with the commission,” said Joseph McGuire, president of the Association of Home Appliance Manufacturers.

Agency-industry cooperation has left us with thousands of lead-containing products on store shelves and in children’s hands. It’s time for the CPSC to start making and enforcing tougher rules, and do their job of keeping consumers safe.

Liz Borkowski works for the Project on Scientific Knowledge and Public Policy (SKAPP) at George Washington University’s School of Public Health and Health Services.

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