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Here, There, and Everywhere: Preventing Lead Poisoning Requires Strong Regulation

Today's post is from Lydia Denworth, author of Toxic Truth: A Scientist, a Doctor, and the Battle over Lead. Denworth is a former Newsweek reporter and People bureau chief. Her writing on science, education, and other social issues has appeared in the New York Times, Redbook, Health, and other publications. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband and three sons.

Book Cover for Toxic Truth links to Beacon Press page for bookBack in August of 2007, I was trying to work on vacation. I was squirreled away in a back bedroom surrounded by files and books when I got a Google alert. Millions of toys were being recalled because of dangerously high levels of leads.

It was a bittersweet moment. When I started work on a book about the battle over lead, I heard a lot about how lead was a problem of the past. That, of course, was part of the point: the book was about what it took to be able to say exactly that. But I often said that lead has a way of coming back to haunt us.

Looking at the email, I wanted to throw open the screen door and shout: I told you so! At the same time, who wants to be right about such a thing? If only it were a problem of the past. For one thing, I wouldn't have to now run to the toy bin and extract every Thomas the Tank Engine.

Furthermore, I was literally surrounded by the history of the battle over lead. Within arm's reach was a book that mentioned the first federal pamphlet warning parents about the dangers of lead in toys--in the 1930s. Another book described a study that found that 25% of Mattel toys had dangerously high levels of lead--in 1957.

Have we learned nothing? I thought bitterly.

At least this time, much of America shared my outrage. Congress soon passed the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act (CPSIA), which aimed to keep products for children 12 and younger lead free (or nearly). It was meant to go fully into effect a few weeks ago.

Between then and now, a backlash arose. When the Consumer Product Safety Commission looked at how to implement and enforce the new law, they literally found that lead was "here, there, and everywhere," a spokesperson told me. The CPSIA would have to apply to an enormous array of products from barrettes and books to t-shirts and plush toys. A wide range of manufacturers would be affected.

Soon concern shifted from Fisher-Price to the mom who silk-screens kids' t-shirts in her basement or the charity shop that resells used toys. Would small businesses be forced to close? The blogosphere filled with posts about the unintended consequences of the CPSIA.

I am sympathetic. I agree that the law needs to bring common sense to bear. The mom making t-shirts should probably not have to pay for testing if every part of her product (fabric, ink, etc.) has already been tested by its manufacturer and found lead-free. I hope and believe the Consumer Product Safety Commission will be responsive to these concerns. The fact that it instituted a one-year stay of enforcement in February instead of requiring the testing on the original schedule indicates there are details to be worked out.

But steeped as I am in the history of lead, I fear we are now losing sight of other consequences. Lead poisoning is entirely preventable--no lead exposure, no lead poisoning. The CPSIA will limit children's exposure to lead. Take the regulatory eye off that goal and lead creeps into a surprising variety of products.

Artificial turf is an example that's been in the news recently. In New Jersey and California, authorities found fields with unacceptably high levels of lead. The California fields contained nearly six times the allowed concentration--and 37 times the lower level mandated by the CPSIA.

Lead in artificial turf makes the colors in logos and lines brighter. When a field is new the risk is low, but as a field ages and weathers, the risk of lead dust being released increases--exactly as it does with lead paint. Kids playing on the field can inhale or ingest that dust.

The history of the effort to protect children from lead provides an alarming list of missed opportunities. A few examples:

  • Australian doctors first linked lead paint to childhood lead poisoning in 1904. American doctors thought the Australians were "addlepated by the heat" and mostly ignored them.

  • Twelve countries banned lead paint from interior use in the 1920s. The United States waited until 1978.

  • When pediatrician Herbert Needleman treated his first lead-poisoned child in 1957, doctors were still routinely failing to diagnose lead poisoning--even when the patients were nearly comatose or suffering convulsions.

  • The Clean Air Act of 1970 required the EPA to begin regulating the levels of lead in the air within thirty days. Sixteen years and several lawsuits later, EPA took lead out of gasoline.

Manufacturers of leaded gasoline said the same thing we're hearing now about the CPSIA: the costs of getting the lead out are prohibitive and the benefits aren't worth it. In the 1980s, the EPA took the then unusual approach of producing a cost-benefit analysis. Yes, the analysts said, taking lead out of gasoline would cost the industries concerned hundreds of millions of dollars. But the EPA used the health research that was just then emerging to also show that if lead remained in gasoline, it would cost the country nearly twice as much in health care, lost wages, special education and other costs.

When lead finally was taken out of gasoline, new paint, food cans and other products, the effects were dramatic. Before 1980, millions of American children had elevated lead levels. Today, that number is down to just over 300,000. That is still too many, but it represents a major improvement.

Now we know even more about what lead does to children's brains. Lead affects IQ, reading, auditory processing, and attention and has been linked to juvenile delinquency. The latest studies show that there's more harm done between 3 and 10 micrograms per deciliter than between 13 and 20. Is a brighter team logo on a soccer field worth that cost?

We must not now become complacent and go backwards. Regulations like the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act prove that we can learn from our mistakes and relegate toy recalls for lead paint to the history books--where they belong.

Related Reading: Lydia Denworth explaining why she wrote Toxic Truth at Only the Blog Knows Brooklyn; Chris Mercogliano discussing Michael Phelps and ADHD; Kevin Scott's post on the Porning of Miley Cyrus; and midwife Patricia Harman on the problems with the U.S. health care system.