Getting the lead out

A massive recall of toys contaminated with lead paint sent parents running to check their toy boxes last fall. That seemingly most innocuous of spots, the foyer of the local Toys R’ Us, is currently wallpapered with bright-yellow consumer warnings.

There’s more than butter on that toast: Adrianne Weir of UNCA’s Lead Poisoning Prevention Center uses an X-ray fluorescent spectrometer to test for lead. Most of the toys pictured here tested positive. Photo By Anne Fitten Glenn

Most of the recalled items were manufactured in China—and since then, there have been monthly, sometimes weekly, recalls of toys deemed hazardous for children. Parents have tossed out basketfuls of playthings and demanded more rigorous testing from toy importers and manufacturers. But toys containing lead continue to circulate and to enter the United States.

Here, Xpress talks to Linda Block about lead in toys and how to deal with the problem. Block is coordinator of the Lead Poisoning Prevention Program at UNCA.

Mountain Xpress: Where can parents find out which toys have been recalled because of lead?
Linda Block: They can go to our Web site ( and click on ‘What’s new/Product recalls.’ I update our site once per month and there are photos of each item, so it’s easy to scan through. Parents can also visit the Consumer Product Safety Commission’s site: Parents can sign up to receive recall notices directly from CPSC. The Lead Poisoning Prevention Program has a parent e-mail list as well, and we send out recall notices regularly.

Avoiding toxic toys isn’t child’s play

Last year’s massive recalls of lead-contaminated toys still have parents concerned.

“I’m now assuming that every toy is a problem, unless it’s wooden and made in Germany, which gets us down to about four toys in our house,” says Sheryl Aikman, the mother of 7-month and 28-month-old girls.

When the first round of recalls of toys made in China was publicized last fall, Aikman checked the lists and did an inventory of her kids’ playthings. She didn’t need to dispose of any, but she says she visited a friend who had her son’s Thomas the Train toys lined up on the mantel to return.

Some of the toys had teethmarks on them.

Aikman notes that because her children are young, they don’t have many toys. “But the next step in our thinking is, ‘How do we choose?’ It’s kind of like choosing organic food. I guess we’ll decide to pay a little more for toys we trust.”

Two recalled toys, a Thomas the Train toy and a Mattel-made car, were on the shelves at The Toy Box in north Asheville. They were promptly pulled and returned.

“The recalls are mostly with companies bigger than those we usually do business with,” says Gary Green, owner of The Toy Box. “The small manufacturers already test all products imported here. The big companies are the ones that let us down. They’d foregone quality control and testing in order to lower costs. The Chinese knew that and wanted to cut costs as well, so they used lead paint.”

Green notes that only a few companies manufacture toys in the United States these days. These include Berlin Wood Products and Montgomery Schoolhouse Toys. Most of the other U.S. toy companies have their products manufactured elsewhere. Even Melissa & Doug, an award-winning wooden-toy maker, now outsources most of their manufacturing to countries such as China and Thailand. (The company emphasizes that its toys are tested both at the manufacturing facilities and when they arrive in the United States.)

“Only after companies assure us that they’re going through the proper testing procedures do we carry their products,” Green says.


What should be done with recalled toys?
Take any recalled item away from children immediately. Parents can contact the manufacturer via Web site or telephone to learn how to proceed. Usually items can be sent back to the manufacturer at no cost and parents receive a full refund. Only 6 percent of recalled toys actually get sent back.

There are concerns about where the toys end up after they are sent back to manufacturers. Sometimes they may be sold overseas. They have also reappeared at thrift stores, flea markets and the like. Many parents simply throw the toys away, although there is concern that this is creating a landfill problem.

If a child has a recalled toy, does he/she need a blood test?
Regardless of whether a child has a recalled toy, all children should be tested for lead at ages 1 and 2. Tests are free at the Buncombe County Health Department. Children at high risk for exposure should get tested each year up to age 6. Although some toys can expose a child to lead—if the child mouths or swallows the item, handles the item and then places her hands in her mouth—the greatest threat to children is still lead dust from deteriorating lead-based paint. Any child living in a pre-1978 house can be at risk. In the United States, in 1978, lead-based paint was no longer allowed to be sold or used for residential purposes.

Should I have my kids’ other toys tested for lead?
Through our inspections, we have identified many items that contain lead that have not been recalled. I highly recommend the Consumer Action Guide to Toxic Chemicals in Toys at This group tested toys that are currently on the shelves for lead, cadmium, chlorine, arsenic and mercury.

Why is lead in toys in the first place?
Lead may be in the metal itself or in paint used on a toy or in the plastic or vinyl itself. I suppose it is used because it is malleable, cheap and corrosion-resistant.

I’ve read that the e-waste that we send to China for disposal is being recycled and used in the jewelry products and then imported back into the United States. Our e-waste [including discarded computer monitors, keyboards and cables] contains many hazardous metals, lead being just one of those.

So what exactly constitutes lead poisoning?
The optimal lead level in a human (or animal) is zero. That said, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention sets levels that are considered acceptable. According to the CDC, for children and pregnant women, levels of lead in the blood that are 20 micrograms per deciliter and above are considered “poisoning.” Levels 10-19 micrograms per deciliter are considered “elevated” or a “level of concern.” Blood-test results below 10 are considered acceptable and often not reported back to parents.

The level of 10 as elevated was established in 1991. Since that time, there have been numerous studies confirming that there are health effects in children and adults at blood-lead levels less than 10. In children, there is a measurable drop in IQ and a loss of ability to pay attention to tasks. Parents should always ask for results of their child’s lead test!

Guidelines for purchasing toys from the U.S. Toy Industry Association

Buy smart: Check age grading and packaging labels to make sure the toy is appropriate for your child. Avoid toys with small parts for children under age 3 or children who mouth toys. Look for toys with sturdy parts and tightly secured joints. Shop at a reputable retailer, one you know and trust. Inspect the condition of second-hand toys and make sure you have the original packaging and instructions. Make sure batteries in toys are firmly attached and not accessible to children.

Organize and supervise: Follow instructions for toy assembly and use. Supervise children as they play. Be a good role model and set an example for safe play. Repair or discard broken toys. Teach older children to keep their toys away from younger siblings.


Our program classifies children who test [in the 5 to 9 range] as at risk. We ask health departments and doctors’ offices to refer all children who test within this range to our program for follow-up. We offer free home inspections for lead in paint, soil, ceramics and toys. For a small fee, we can test drinking water or dust. We educate parents about lead sources and ways to eliminate lead hazards.

In 2006, the following percentages of children tested [in the 5 to 9 range] at ages 1 and 2: Buncombe County 6.1, Henderson County 7.7, Madison County 9.3, Yancey County 12.1.

Where can parents get more information?
Contact the Lead Poisoning Prevention Center at 251-6104 or e-mail me at The Web site is Take our lead-safe work-practices class. See above for links to the Consumer Product Safety Commission and Healthy Toys Web sites. 

[Anne Fitten Glenn is an Asheville-based writer, photographer and mother of two kids. She writes about parenting and other subjects on her blog and in a weekly column for Xpress called “Edgy Mama.”]


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One thought on “Getting the lead out

  1. Linda

    Thank you, MtX, for helping us get this important information out to the community! You all rock. We are always hoping more parents will take advantage of our free services.

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