Lead and Toy Safety: A Primer

Lead

Lead (Chemical symbol Pb)

I was lucky enough last week to be invited to visit a moms’ group and speak to them about toy safety.  They were interested primarily in the question of lead in toys, probably since this issue has been frequently mentioned in the press in recent years.

In Canada, Health Canada divides toys and children’s products into those that are likely to be mouthed or chewed by children (such as pacifiers and crib toys) and those which are less likely, such as items designed for older children.  For this first group, known as Class One items, Health Canada has set one of the most stringent allowable lead limits in the world, at 90 mg/kg.  This is a very tough standard indeed:  the general allowable level for lead — for non-toy items —  as determined by Health Canada is 600 mg/kg, which is defined as the threshold at which there would be no significant lead exposure if a child consumed a one square inch paint chip containing this amount each day.

So the 90 mg/kg limit for lead exposure for infants is pretty conservative — but deservedly so.  Lead is a heavy metal that accumulates in tissues, and is toxic in very small amounts to humans and other organisms.  Babies and small children are particularly susceptible to lead’s neurotoxic effects, as their bodies are less efficient at clearing the lead than are those of adults, and their brains are still developing.  Lead poisoning may lead to learning and behavioral disorders in children.

If we know that lead poses a risk to human health, then why is lead still periodically found in painted items?  The answer is simple:  lead is cheap.  Using lead as an ingredient produces an inexpensive paint that is richer in color and that may be easier to apply to various surfaces, compared to paints formulated with non-toxic ingredients.  Companies using cheaper lead-containing paints to coat items — in defiance of US and Canadian laws  —  make more money.  It’s just that simple.

Most North American toy makers now outsource their manufacturing to Asia, where costs are very low.  The manufacturing process is thus carried out far away from management’s watchful eye; the foreign factories may themselves subcontract various aspects to third parties, unknown to the North American manufacturers.  Foreign sub-contractors may also substitute less expensive ingredients for those stipulated in the contract, in order to increase their profits.  Because the manufacturing is carried out in a different country, with different levels of enforcement, it’s sometimes tough for North American companies to uncover such actions until the items are tested here, by impartial agencies.

This is not to excuse shoddy manufacturing processes.  Reputable toy companies and toy retailers want your children to stay safe.  They want nothing more than to provide wonderful playthings that will engage and delight children.  Reputable companies try their utmost to ensure that their products are manufactured honestly, using safe materials and safe designs.  They also willingly submit their products to the very tough testing standards required by both the US and Canadian governments.  But mistakes can be made, and even the best-run companies can experience a problem with one or more items, and those companies that are reputable will quickly recall and replace anything that may be found to be potentially dangerous.

We all — parents, caregivers, government — have a responsibility for the safety of our children.  The US Consumer Products Safety Commission has a website that lists all children’s products recalled; you can have the list delivered to your email in-box as they are posted.  Retailers are also required to post notices of recalls that affect items they have stocked.  Together, we can work to make our children safer while still ensuring that they have all the play they need and deserve.

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