As we all know, lead is a dangerous substance and has been regulated in paints used on consumer products for over 30 years now. But it seems that there is a misrepresentation about how lead is used and how toxic it truly is to users of products that contain it. Lead is a soft heavy metal, found in ore, so it’s not an accident if it ends up in certain products; it is intentionally put there by someone. But, it is important to understand that lead has served a positive purpose in many applications; however, it also has severe negative health effects. It has been used in paints, plastics and metals for quite some time, across many product categories and industries. Its use hasn’t always been safe, that’s for sure….but it isn’t always unsafe either when used in certain consumer product applications. What many people don’t know is how lead gets into your body? How does it cause harm? Why does it cause harm?
The regulating of lead in paints has been clearly justified, because over time paint will change physically, as a result of the evaporation and degradation of binders and solvents in the paint vehicle. Eventually, the paint will begin to chip and likely become dust; directly exposing people to the embedded lead. Through hand to mouth contact or contamination of food and water or even inhalation, the lead is introduced into the body. Remember in the Chris Farley movie, when David Spade asked if he ate paint chips when he was a kid and he asked “why?”…funny in the movie, but a real hazard. Children who are exposed to lead have been known to have learning disabilities, abdominal, kidney & liver ailments, neuropathy, increased blood pressure and in rare cases, death.
The lead in paints after ingestion or inhalation could then become bio-available. The definition of bio-available according to Webster’s dictionary is:
“n. The degree to which or rate at which a drug or other substance is absorbed or becomes available at the site of physiological activity after administration.”
Further to that, the Encyclopedia of Public Health states:
“Bioavailability refers to the difference between the amount of a substance, such as a drug, herb, or chemical, to which a person is exposed and the actual dose of the substance the body receives. Bioavailability accounts for the difference between exposure and dose. A drug’s therapeutic action or a chemical’s toxicity is determined by the dose received at the target site in the body.”
Therefore, we know that if there is any amount of lead in paint, over time when exposed to the right conditions, all paints will degrade, permit bioavailability and depending on the amount of absorbed lead, could result in chronic or acute toxicity. This completely makes sense in paints, which is why the laws have regulated lead in paints for so long. The regular exposure of lead in small dosages over a period of time can result in a bioaccumulation of the lead in living tissue, can lead to prolonged health problems; this is why theoretically, no amount of lead in paint is safe, because your body retains a large portion of the lead that is bioavailable. All of this is true and everyone wants to avoid putting humans, especially children and pregnant women at risk of avoidable health issues. No one will argue that lead in paint or gasoline is safe for human life.
However, where it gets cloudy is the governments decision to limit lead in all other materials, which may not result in the same degree of lead exposure and negative health effects as leaded paint may provide. Let’s use a lead containing plastic lunch box as an example. Certainly, food will come in direct contact with the plastic, but lead doesn’t simply rub off of plastic or other substrates, because it is in most cases, chemically bonded with the plastic. According to the new laws in the US, the lead is at a toxic level in this lunch box if it exceeds 0.03%of the weight of the lunch box; called the “total lead content”. However, the lead is never bio-available to the user of the lunch box, because the lead remains in place and doesn’t leach to the food or hands of the user.
An example of excessive & accessible lead is in jewelry, because its bioavailability was proven, with the death of 4 year old Jarnell Brown in 2004, after swallowing a component of a Reebok charm bracelet, provided with a pair of shoes. The extremely high percentage of lead in the charm, resulted in acute lead toxicity and Jarnell’s death within a couple of days of his swallowing it. Items able to be swallowed and that contain excessive amounts of lead are undeniably a hazard. Items continually mouthed and not necessarily able to be swallowed could even result in elevated lead/blood levels. This charm was made almost entirely of lead, so by swallowing it, a large percentage of the lead was bio-available. Fortunately, the CPSC and Congress acted swiftly to this event and justifiably enacted a lead in children’s jewelry regulation.
Congress did not consider the size, shape or bioavailability of lead in solid materials when they passed the new laws for children’s products and toys in 2008 (CPSIA). They simply applied a blanket requirement to all products intended for children under 12 years of age and limited the allowable lead in all accessible materials of those goods. The CPSC realized that congress may have overstepped when it was discovered that brass valves on children’s bicycle tires contained excessive amounts of lead and there was nothing the bicycle industry could do, but stop selling bikes for children. Later, the CPSC determined that valves were exempt from meeting the lead requirements, but why? Why brass valves on bikes and not other products, impossible to be consumed or not increasing the bioavailability of the lead? The bicycle industry could not change the valves overnight, because the lead was considered a technological necessity and by replacing the lead with a less hazardous alternative, leaking inner tubes would present a different risk of injury to the rider. So, which injury took precedence? Not lead exposure. The CPSC rightfully exempted brass valves because of the lack of a child’s accessibility to the embedded lead and the normal use patterns and interaction of the child with the valve.
Many feel that lead, no matter its purpose should still be regulated in children’s products, but I don’t agree. Lead limits shouldn’t be a blanket requirement that applies to all things, no matter their intended use, bioavailability or risk of exposure. I don’t expect a legislative body to include provisions in the law that detail every item, material, construction and finished good the limits should apply to either. I do expect them to allow the CPSC, whose purpose is to protect consumers from unnecessary and avoidable injury, to use sound and expert judgment in determining the appropriate application of these lead limits in substrates, like they did with bicycle valves. However, the appropriate house committee appears to be trying to take that authority of judgement away from the CPSC. Is that to suggest, that Rep. Henry Waxman knows more about the results of lead exposures than a toxicologist working for the CPSC? Or that Rep. Bobby Rush knows more about this subject than the CPSC’s Executive Director of Hazard Identification & Reduction? Doubt it.
To those who think simply removing lead is an easy answer, it’s not. It can be and has proven to be difficult and often impossible to completely eliminate. Companies have ceased selling products and entire lines of products because of CPSIA. Some have gone out of business. Jobs have been lost. Local economies impacted. All, because limiting lead sounded like the right thing to do and with no consideration of how it will affect industries, specific products, the people in those industries or whether the lead was actually a hazard risk in the first place. In most cases, toys on the market are no safer than they were before this law. It hasn’t really changed anything, except for challenging the sustainability of the toy industry.
We have little hope that anything will change in regard to these laws and we will continue to meet the requirements, but the average consumer should know that just because lead is present, doesn’t mean it is harmful. Don’t let misinformation of certain groups dissuade you from purchasing goods; simply because they say “lead was detected”….it likely is a safe toy. I wouldn’t put my child in harm’s way, but I also won’t take the advice of those whose agenda is not only to protect children, but enact change, no matter what those changes are or their consequences.