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Christmas Lights Could Expose Children to Toxic Lead

Dec 13, 2007 | Parker Waichman LLP

Christmas lights are the latest product to raise lead poisoning concerns.  CNN analyzed four common brands of Christmas lights—WalMart, GE, Sylvania, and Phillips—and all revealed lead levels high enough to be dangerous to children.

About 5,000 children are diagnosed with lead poisoning in New York yearly.  Exposure to lead in children and unborn children can cause brain and nervous system damage, behavioral and learning problems, slowed growth, hearing problems, headaches, mental and physical retardation, and behavioral and other health problems.  Lead is also known to cause cancer and reproductive harm and, in adults, lead can damage the nervous system.

CNN's purchased samples of four common brands of Christmas lights and asked an independent New Jersey-based testing organization, Quantex Laboratories, to check for surface lead.  Quantex analyzed three strings of lights from each brand and followed the Consumer Product Safety Commission’s (CPSC) standard wipe test for lead in polyvinyl chloride products to determine how much lead in the cords' PVC coating would come off on someone's hands.  One of the concerns is that someone will touch the leaded object, eat something, and ingest the lead.

All four brands of lights tested contained surface lead levels far exceeding the CPSC's recommended children's limit of 15 micrograms.  Wal-Mart brand lights had the highest levels of surface lead, with levels ranging from 86.6 to 132.7 micrograms.  GE lights had levels from 68 to 109.1 micrograms.  Sylvania had levels from 59 to 70.3 micrograms.  Levels of surface lead in the lights made by Philips ranged from a low of 3.2—well under the 15 microgram limit—to 107.2 in another sample.

Manufacturers do not hide the fact that lead is part of the PVC insulation that is used to insulate and help prevent cracking or crumbling of Christmas light wiring.  Lead is used legally to stabilize polyvinyl chloride so it does not deteriorate with time.  Lead also acts as a fire retardant.  But the levels of surface lead found in these lights surprised Dr. Leo Trasande, a specialist in children's environmental health at New York's Mount Sinai School of Medicine.  Trasande and many others agree that there is no level at which lead exposure is safe and states that even one microgram/deciliter—the lowest detectable level in a person's blood stream—has been associated with cognitive impairment in children.

The four companies expressed concern about safety, but stood by their products and sighted stringent Underwriters Laboratories (UL)— which sets the standards for electrical coatings—safety and quality regulations.  The CPSC insists Christmas lights do not pose an elevated danger of lead exposure to children and a CPSC spokeswoman vigorously criticized the CNN tests.  The argument is that children should not be playing with and handling Christmas lights.  In a prior interview, not a response to CNN's tests, the CPSC warned that children should keep away from Christmas lights because they are electrical products, not toys.

UL, which inspects tree lights for electrical and fire hazards, said there are substitutes for lead  which can be used in the insulation, such as calcium and zinc, but those options would be more expensive to manufacture.


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