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Toxic heavy metals in children’s products 10/10
(This article is adapted from the October 2010 Consumer Reports magazine.)

U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission
Two years after sweeping rules sought to limit lead in children's products, another toxic heavy metal, cadmium, is causing concern. And though retailers and manufacturers are increasingly vigilant, lead also continues to appear in some items.

Lead and cadmium have accounted for the recall of millions of products in the past few months alone. The list includes painted furniture, jewelry, children's clothing, McDonald's drinking glasses, and even trinkets that kids receive at doctors' and dentists' offices.

Health risks from heavy metals

Lead poisoning has several effects, which can include brain damage and diminished mental and physical development.

Cadmium is a carcinogen that is a by-product of refining lead, zinc, copper, and other metals. One of its primary commercial uses has been in rechargeable batteries, such as those found in cordless phones and power tools.

Long-term exposure to cadmium has been linked to a host of adult health problems, including high blood pressure and age-related macular degeneration, as well as cancer of the lung, breast, and kidney. Children's developing bodies are especially vulnerable to damage from both lead and cadmium, but long-term exposure even at relatively low levels can be hazardous to anyone.

Stronger rules and testing needed

The U.S. banned the use of lead in gasoline and house paint in the 1970s. Since a flood of lead-tainted toy recalls led to the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act in 2008, it is illegal to manufacture or sell children's products that contain more than 300 ppm (parts per million) of total lead. Limits for lead in paint and surface coatings used on any consumer product are down to 90 ppm from 600 ppm, and limits on total lead in children’s products may go down further next year, pending new standards to be set by the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC).

Consumers Union, the nonprofit publisher of Consumer Reports, has urged the CPSC to develop a regulation for cadmium limits for all children's products and believes that manufacturers, distributors, and retailers should thoroughly test for all heavy-metal concentrations before bringing products to market.

The limits on lead are well defined for children's products, but lead and cadmium also should be regulated in products that can result in exposure via direct ingestion, such as cellphone charms or garden hoses from which consumers might drink.
What you can do

• Don't allow children to have or play with cheap metal jewelry. If your children tend to put things in their mouths, add to that brass keys, barrettes, and charms.

• Take an inventory of your children's toys and check them against the recall list at www.cpsc.gov, which has photos and descriptions of products recalled for lead or cadmium. Also check the list if you're buying used items.

• Don't let your kids drink from garden hoses, which might contain lead that can leach into water.

• As a precaution, wash your hands immediately after handling power cords, extension cords, and even strings of holiday lights as lead may be used in the manufacture of the cords.

• Consider relatively inexpensive do-it-yourself lead test kits, which can be useful, though limited, screening tools for products around the home. Home lead test kits use one of two chemicals—sodium sulfide or rhodizonate—to detect lead by color change.

In Consumer Reports 2007 and 2008 tests, the Abotex Lead Inspector Kit ($13) and the Homax Lead Check Kit ($8) detected surface, or "accessible," lead. (They don't detect lead embedded below the surface.) But the testers found that correctly reading the color levels takes some practice. If an item tests positive, remove it from use. For exact lead levels, you can have it screened professionally.

Related links

Heavy metals: Despite progress, our tests still find products with lead and cadmium 10/10

Lead and Radon Test Kits 9/08
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