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Lead Paint Poisoning
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Toys, trinkets still expose children to lead

Countries that export toys don't always manufacture them under U.S. standards.

Nov 22, 2006 | The Roanoke Times

Most people know about the dangers of lead paint, especially if they have children and an older house. What they probably don't expect is that the toys and trinkets they can buy today might also have toxic levels of lead in them.

Target announced a recall of more than 190,000 Kool Toyz-brand products Tuesday, in part because they were found to contain lead paint. Unfortunately, recalls like that are hardly rare.

In November, 3,000 "Cars" toy storage benches sold by Toys "R" Us were recalled for the same reason lead paint.

And in March, Reebok recalled 300,000 lead charm bracelets after a 4-year-old died from lead poisoning after swallowing one.

For people accustomed to seeing unsafe products banned from the marketplace discovering that some toys were made with dangerous ingredients can be a shock.

Lead poisoning rarely leads to death, but it's especially dangerous because it can often go undetected. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, lead poisoning can cause learning disabilities and behavioral problems that doctors may not associate with a child's environment.

Once a person is diagnosed with lead poisoning, though, the CDC, Environmental Protection Agency and Department of Housing and Urban Development will try to determine the source, which might be paint chips or dust, drinking water from lead pipes, or a toy.

There are, in fact, two regulations that deal with lead in household products. The Consumer Product Safety Act effectively bans lead paint, and the Federal Hazardous Substances Act bans products with high levels of accessible lead in products children might be exposed to.

But just because they're banned here doesn't mean they're banned elsewhere, and there is no official mechanism for screening the products as they enter the country, especially when we're talking about billions of inexpensive toys.

"A lot of the stuff we buy in this country is manufactured abroad, and they don't have the same standards," said Bob Clement, neighborhood services coordinator for Roanoke's department of Housing and Neighborhood Services. He works with the city's Lead-Safe Roanoke program.

The toys Target recalled were made in China, but the toy benches sold by Toys "R" Us came from New York.

Unlike big-ticket, big-brand-name items such as cars or televisions, smaller products that don't meet U.S. standards often slip through the cracks.

"We don't have the authority to pre-approve products on the market," explained Patty Davis, spokeswoman for the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission. Instead, the CPSC relies on private industry to essentially police itself.

"Manufacturers, retailers, and importers are expected to abide by the laws of the United States," she said.

With symptoms easily misdiagnosed doctors thought the boy who swallowed the Reebok charm had gastroenteritis -- parents have few ways to know whether their children have chewed or swallowed something with too much lead.

"I think the first thing anyone needs to do if they have kids is have them tested for lead," Clement said. "I would make it part of the kid's physical."

Beyond that, there's little a parent can do besides keep up with the CPSC's recall notices.

"It's not fair to a kid who doesn't know any better to be exposed to these conditions," Clement said. "They're the innocent victims in all this."

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