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Consumer Protection Agency Covered Up Risks from Lead in Children's Lunchboxes

Center for Environmental Health
528 61st Street, Suite A
Oakland, California 94609

Click here to see the Associated Press story.

Oakland, CA- Government documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) by the Center for Environmental Health (CEH) were released today, revealing that the federal Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) withheld information about high levels of lead found in its testing of children’s vinyl lunchboxes, and falsely claimed that agency tests showed no need for concern.

In the summer of 2005, a CEH investigation made national news by exposing the widespread lead contamination found in children’s vinyl lunchboxes. Just weeks after the CEH test results were released, the federal Consumer Product Safety Commission announced that its testing showed no lead problems from lunchboxes. Now, CEH has received government documents showing that at the time CPSC made its announcement, its own laboratory testing showed that vinyl lunchboxes had levels of lead as much as 16 times higher than levels allowed for lead in paint. Even worse, the documents reveal that at the time the agency was about to announce that lead lunchboxes are safe, CPSC had just changed its testing procedure in an apparent effort to minimize findings of lead in lunchboxes.

“CPSC told parents that these lunchboxes were safe, but their own tests showed that lead in these lunchboxes could pose a threat to children,” said Michael Green, Executive Director of CEH. “It is shocking to see an agency entrusted with our safety playing Russian roulette with our children’s health.”

CEH announced its findings of lead in children’s lunchboxes on August 31, 2005. In its September 27, 2005 announcement of “Preliminary Lead Test Results for Vinyl Lunchboxes,” CPSC claimed that its “staff tested the inside and outside of each lunch box and the preliminary results were consistently below one microgram (μg)." The agency stated that this level posed no health threat to children.

But the documents CEH just received in response to a FOIA request from over a year ago show that at the time of the CPSC statement, the agency had tested fewer than ten vinyl lunchboxes, and already had some tests showing high lead levels. Three of these early CPSC tests showed lunchboxes with lead levels that were 2-16 times higher than the limit for lead in paint, and in at least three other tests, lunchboxes were found with levels higher than 1.0 μg of lead released from the surface of the lunchbox (under California law, ingestion of more than 0.5 μg of lead is illegal in consumer products). The documents also show that the agency’s testing methods were haphazard, with some tests conducted on both interior and exterior surfaces and some only on the outside, and had inconsistent findings.

Even more troubling, the CPSC documents show a shift in the agency’s testing procedures for lunchboxes. After finding high levels of lead in some initial testing, an agency memo notes that they were changing the testing procedure, in an apparent attempt to rig the process so it would be less likely to find high lead levels. Agency staff also told their lab scientists to report on average lead levels in their tests, instead of cumulative lead levels, even though in the real world children are exposed to lead cumulatively.

In a memo apparently referring to Hal Stratton, who was at the time Chairman of CPSC, an agency scientist explains the change in methodology stating that “This shows (or I guess HS will say that this shows) that the overall risk is lower than our original testing would have showed….”

“It’s especially disturbing that the testing procedures were both inconsistent and manipulated” added CEH researcher Alexa Engelman, “Using an average exposure for lead from lunchboxes is like telling a parent, ‘here’s a pile of paint chips, and some contain high levels of lead, but many contain very low levels, so it’s ok for your child to eat the whole pile, because on average the exposure is low.’ It’s complete nonsense.”

Since its initial investigation, CEH has tested hundreds of lunchboxes bought from store shelves and received from concerned parents, and has initiated legal action against the retailers and manufacturers of these dangerous products. Through this litigation, CEH has created industry-wide reformulation of vinyl lunchboxes to eliminate lead threats to children, in groundbreaking settlements with fifteen manufactures and retailers of vinyl lunchboxes. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration also last year issued a warning to manufacturers of vinyl lunchboxes, advising them to eliminate the use of vinyl in lunchbox interiors. Ironically, FDA based their recommendation in part on CPSC’s test results.

“It is the responsibility of our government to reduce all lead exposures to our most vulnerable population; our children,” said Michael Green. “In the face of inaction from the CPSC, our organization along with allied states and Attorney Generals will continue to work to eliminate lead from kid’s lunch menus.”

To see charts and test results click here.