How Art Thou Wrong, Ms. Northup? Let Me Count the Ways

In my recent letter to the editor of the Wall Street Journal, I responded to Ann Northup, a commissioner of the federal Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), who wrote a misleading editorial in The Journal, opposing new federal legislation that protects children from lead in toys and other consumer products.

Why would a government official charged with protecting people from hazardous consumer products rail against legislation that improves her agency’s ability power to do just that? I’d be speculating if I answered, so I’ll mention what seems clear: Northup (one of two Republican Commissioners at CPSC) seems less interested in children’s health than in perpetuating myths, falsehoods, and half-truths about the new rules.

Wrong Once

Northup claims that the law makes it impossible for companies to produce many common children’s products. “This means such ordinary items as zippers, buttons, belts, the hinge on a child’s dresser—and even that bicycle from Santa Claus—are outlawed,” she says.

SPOILER ALERT #1: Santa Claus doesn’t make bicycles; factory workers in China do.

SPOILER ALERT #2: The law doesn’t “outlaw” zippers, hinges, and other components of kids’ products; it simply requires that they be made without lead. Is Northup really suggesting that it’s impossible to make buttons without lead? It’s not.

Wrong Twice

Under the new law, strict lead limits for toys and other children’s products are mandatory for the first time. The law also increases CPSC’s authority to stop the import of hazardous children’s products, and it bans the resale of recalled products. Instead of applauding these prudent new protections for children’s health, Northup wants to weaken the law and lower the age range of children protected by it, suggesting that, because lead is more dangerous to younger children, older kids don’t need legal protection.

Lead exposure is harmful at any age, and since lead accumulates in our bodies, eliminating early exposures is an important way to minimize later risks. Recent studies show that adults exposed to low doses of lead over time have impaired mental abilities and have more problems with high blood pressure, kidney problems and other health woes. Lead also poses a heightened threat to young women and their babies. One recent study showed that women with higher blood-lead levels have higher rates of miscarriages, and other studies have found a significant decline in the IQ of children of women with higher blood-lead levels.

Wrong Three Times

Most worrisome, Northup incorrectly claims people can not absorb lead from materials other than paint. Wrong again.

For more on this, see the 2007 Consumer Reports article about two Minnesota children with elevated blood-lead levels. Researchers traced this lead directly to numerous lead-contaminated household items the children played and interacted with, including a vinyl diaper bag, toys, and several other children’s products. Which is to say, Ms. Northup, that the lead in these products can, in fact, be absorbed by people.

The Minnesota family is hardly unique. In fact, other lead sources such as toys, household products, and other consumer items are responsible for approximately thirty percent of elevated blood-lead levels in kids. While paint in older homes remains the primary source of lead exposure to children, it is just one of many materials that poses a lead threat to kids.

Wrong Four and Five Times

Northup complains that certain brass pieces on toy cars are needlessly subject to the new lead laws. She claims that lead in “substrate” metals – the metal base below a plated or coated surface – is not “bioavailable” and thus cannot harm children. She also says that tests showed that the brass exposes children to “less lead than the Food and Drug Administration allows in a piece of candy.” There are two items to correct here.

First, coating lead does not make it safe. Jarnell Brown, a four-year-old Minneapolis boy, swallowed a metal charm and died from lead poisoning in 1996. What killed Jarnell? Substrate lead that was entirely coated. The fact is that plating is neither durable nor effective at encapsulating lead.

Second, when Northup compares regulations on substrate lead to those on lead in candy, she either misunderstands the science or consciously attempts to confuse people. The FDA standard on lead in candy regulates the total amount of lead in the product – that is, how many units of lead a child would ingest along with the candy. But the brass test that upsets Northup doesn’t actually measure the amount of lead in the brass; it only measures how much lead comes off in a laboratory wipe test. (Finally, I’ve gotten around to discussing the meaning of brass wiping.)

But that’s where the jokes end. A child sucking on the brass or swallowing it could actually ingest a much higher, potentially lethal, dose of lead. Northup’s comparison is an apples-to-oranges shell game that obscures serious risks to children from unneeded lead in toys.

Fortunately, Ms. Northup didn’t write the new federal law, which cuts through phony arguments about “absorption” and “bioavailability.” Northup waxes nostalgic for the good ole days when convenience and profits trumped children’s health, and she urges Congress to return to lead standards that were based on a reckless question: how much lead is it ok to dose our children with?

The new federal lead rules require manufacturers to answer a more precautionary question: how can we eliminate unnecessary lead in products for children? The new law is a strong and long-overdue health standard, and it is based on the scientific consensus that, where children are concerned, we should eliminate every possible lead threat. Conveniently, it is also the standard that parents demand when they buy products for their children.

Far too many children suffered lead exposures while waiting for the new law. But after years of fighting, we finally have strong federal regulations protecting our kids from lead.

If only the leaders of the agency empowered to protect kids from lead agreed their job was important.

Comments Closed

7 Comments

  1. W
    Posted January 19, 2010 at 2:16 pm | Permalink

    How did I ever survive playing with matchbox cars, riding bicycles, playing in the school band, or riding ATVs and motorcycles.

    With current technology and the available resources, it is impossible to make many items such as hinges, bicycle and ATV parts, and others, without lead. Even bikes made of bamboo need metal parts with certain functionality.

    The problem with the law is that it removed the risk-assessment power of the CPSC.

    Jarnell’s story is sad but he died from ingesting something he should not have, whether it was a trinket, a mushroom, or aspirin, the issue was not the trinket but the action.

  2. Sean Sullivan
    Posted January 21, 2010 at 11:30 am | Permalink

    Let’s not play blame the victim. In the case of a child swallowing a metal trinket, that suggests a cruel misunderstanding of how the world works.

    Anyone with any experience with kids know that a high percentage of them will stick things in their mouths when they’re not supposed to, and many will accidentally swallow them (who doesn’t know a kid who has swallowed a penny, a button, or other questionable object…?). Of course he “should not have” swallowed it; but should we risk poisoning and killing kids because industry would rather keep using hazardous materials even when they can be easily replaced?

    The law provides exemptions when leaded components are inaccessible, and CPSC staff are working on when parts with essential lead may be exempted (and in the meantime they have stated they will not enforce the law against producers, eg bike makers). But to state, as Northup did, that buttons can’t be made without lead is pure sophistry.

  3. Posted January 22, 2010 at 12:18 pm | Permalink

    You were very quick to point out Ms Northup’s “mistakes”, while making plenty of your own:

    “ALERT #1: Santa Claus doesn’t make bicycles; factory workers in China do.” But this law doesn’t only deal with imports, it deals with the many, safe products made by American workers.

    “SPOILER ALERT #2: The law doesn’t “outlaw” zippers, hinges, and other components of kids’ products; it simply requires that they be made without lead.”
    No, it does not SIMPLY require that they be made without lead — it also requires that all of those products and many, many more be TESTED to prove that they do not have lead — testing that is very expensive, and not within the reach of many small companies, who have been making perfectly safe products for children. (Testing that is also required of products that have no risk of containing lead.)

    “The law also increases CPSC’s authority to stop the import of hazardous children’s products” Again, you imply that the law only deals with imports, and only with hazardous products. Both are incorrect. Perfectly safe children’s products are being pulled from the market because of the overzealousness of this law. Many businesses, particularly smaller ones, in the United States are suffering.

    “…and it bans the resale of recalled products.” Such a simple statement, that leaves out so much. First of all, it makes it dangerous for the resellers to sell much more than just recalled products. If it is a children’s product, we are expected to KNOW that it is lead-free before we sell it — something that we cannot accurately do without expensive tests. And while banning the resale of recalled products sounds like a good idea – how are resellers to know if a product has been recalled? We run a risk with every child’s product we resell – again, causing many perfectly safe products to be pulled from the market.

    “The new law is a strong and long-overdue health standard, and it is based on the scientific consensus that, where children are concerned, we should eliminate every possible lead threat.”
    While eliminating every lead threat sounds like a nice goal, this law restricts lead in places that it has never been a threat – in bicycles, in ATVs, in the pages of old books – if there is lead in those places, it is not causing a threat to children, but it is banned due to CPSIA the same as in any places that it does present a risk.

    “Far too many children suffered lead exposures while waiting for the new law.” Actually, the Center for Disease Control has gotten lead poisoning almost completely under control in the last decade. The vast majority of cases of lead poisoning have been from lead-in paint (banned long before CPSIA), lead-in gasoline (also banned long ago), and lead, primarily from those sources, that has leaked into the environment over the years. This law does very, very little to protect children.

  4. W
    Posted January 22, 2010 at 2:31 pm | Permalink

    It is impractical and impossible to regulate everything. And truthfully I am tired of being taxed for regulations written by a politically motivated congress without qualifications rather than the the CPSC experts that have the knowledge and experience to do the work. CPSIA is a disaster and has not made anyone safer. CPSA should have been granted the funds and had their mandate reinforced.

    The most effective course of action is not legislation it is to stop buying junk children’s products from China. American consumers ahve caused the problem with their incessant desire to buy everything at a Wal-Mart price. Regulation will only touch a ridiculously small portion of Chinese products entering the U.S., as anyone with any kind of manufacturing experience at all will tell you. To think any different is pure fantasy.

    The net effect of regulation has been to put hundreds of small U.S. children’s product manufacturers out of business. Not to improve the quality of products coming in from China.

    Profit is driving production. Want a quick result? Stop buying children’s products from China.

  5. Charles Margulis
    Posted January 22, 2010 at 2:59 pm | Permalink

    Our response did not state or imply that the law only covers imported products. But imports make up an extremely high percentage of the millions of children’s products sold by many major retailers, and most of those found to pose lead hazards to kids were imported products (hazards which have not become “under control,” as the example of the Minnesota family in our post sadly demonstrates).

    We agree that the law needs to provide some relief for small businesses, and this will be the subject of a future post.

  6. Posted February 3, 2010 at 9:48 am | Permalink

    “In fact, other lead sources such as toys, household products, and other consumer items are responsible for approximately thirty percent of elevated blood-lead levels in kids.”

    This statement is MISLEADING (I suspect deliberately) and simply wrong. I read the article you link to, and while the “30% other sources” part is accurate, the study does NOT claim that “toys and other consumer items” are responsible for 30% of elevated blood lead levels – but soil, air, drinking water, breast milk, food, etc. (which seem to be the major sources) AND consumer goods are responsible for the 30% of exposure not due to lead paint and dust from lead paint). Although they don’t specifically break down relative contributions of different sources (except for in Arizona), the fact that consumer goods are one of the last areas they discuss gives me the impression that consumer goods are a relatively minor source of lead (indeed they don’t even get their own category in the Arizona stats) and if we restrict the list to children’s goods, we probably account for a very small portion of exposure indeed.

    I’m not arguing that we should be cavalier about lead in children’s goods. Obviously we should be continuing to take reasonable measures to reduce lead. But this law has created considerable harm in kids’ lives (by taking away the second hand market, removing books from libraries and schools, forcing small manufacturers of safe and desirable goods to stop making items – like specialty materials for schools and disabled kids – and pushing quality European makers like Selecta and Brio out of the US market leaving us with cheap Chinese crap) and harmed many worthwhile businesses while likely accomplishing very little in the way of additionally reducing children’s exposure to lead. It fails to address the sources that make up the bulk of that 30% and ignores the facts that high lead levels in kids’ products were already punishable and that pretty much all the recalls have been for cheap goods made in China. There was no need for such a sweeping, inflexible law. That’s why so many people whom one might expect to support the law (like me) want to see it changed. One does have to do cost-benefit analyses when seeking to reduce risk. Otherwise, we’d have to eliminate things like motor vehicles which cause lots of death, injury and other harm to people, animals and the environment every year – but which also have considerable benefit in our society, so we accept the risk.

    I’m also not sure you’re correct about the brass swipe tests – my impression is that the cited results for lead content in brass are from the mandatory destructive testing – but in any event, brass is not a big deal in toys for the very young children who are most likely to suck or chew on their toys. The CPSC as a whole (including the Democratic appointees) concluded that the brass bushings in the toy cars it tested were not a real risk to kids, but were banned under the wording of the law. In addition, brass is much more common in items intended for adults as well but frequently encountered and handled by kids (everything from keys, doorknobs, fasteners on their parents’ clothing, and musical instruments to most electronics) but I see no push from groups like yours to eliminate the use of brass in all consumer products. Why not if it’s so dangerous?

  7. Posted March 23, 2010 at 9:39 am | Permalink

    Those are incredible comments on this article and all very worthwhile and well considered. I am a safety and regulatory professional in the toy industry and I am in favor of improving the safety of consumer products. However, as Dr. Baicker-McKee touched on, where is the scientific support for the changes and limits in CPSIA? I just today posted a statement on my blog on this very topic. This stemmed from Mattel’s violation of the 600ppm lead limit, which was in place for 30 years and it had nothing to do with that limit being hazardous to children.

    Suddenly the industry and ultimately consumers and children are paying the price. The brass valve stems are perfect examples of inclusion in the law, but didn’t make any sense. Lead is necessary in brass and no, there are no alternatives. Its purpose is to fill in gaps in the porous metal and prevent air leakage and without it, the bike would pose a far greater hazard than the lead itself. Had the bicycle industry not been given relief by the CPSC, there would absolutely be no children’s bicycles on the market; that is a fact, because at the time of the enactment of CPSIA, I worked for the largest bicycle supplier in North America and was in charge of safety and compliance.

    The law was created in such a short amount of time, with no testimony from the industry or consideration of the CPSC’s feedback. This is not about political party; it is however, a matter of determining if children are truly any safer from lead or phthalate exposure than before CPSIA and how the law has affected small business, home operated craft and specialty market suppliers, the second hand market and the charities that benefit from them and for what? Unproven limitations in toys and children’s products.

    The scope was so broad that everything intended for children was included, rather than determining and better defining what categories should be regulated, when considering play and use patterns and bioavailability of lead and phthalates during that use, like the charm with excessive lead, which lead to that little boys death. There was obviously need for legislation, but that happened far before the Mattel recalls and before CPSIA was ever considered. That was its own issue, which was swiftly handled in cooperation with the CPSC and Congress.

    Bobby Rush sponsored the bill and he has a seat on the energy & commerce committee and he also happened to be running for re-election in 2008; any coincidence? Were politics did come into play was during the drafting and expedited approval the house committee.