A child's backpack was found to have 20 times the federal limit for lead.
Parents packing their kids' lunch for the first days of school may be unaware of the potential dangers in one type of lunchbox. Or that some pencil pouches and a Spider-Man backpack that were available this summer could pose a threat to their children's neurological development.
High levels of lead have been found in those back-to-school supplies at major retail stores, according to the Center for Environmental Health, a nonprofit that tests for chemicals in consumer products.
The group's independent testing found that out of 100 children's products purchased throughout the Bay Area and the Fresno region this summer, nearly half a dozen products contained lead. The center issued a press release late last month that got little attention.
"Who wants to send their children off to school with a backpack full of lead?” said Caroline Cox, research director at the center, in an interview.
A Spider-Man backpack distributed by Fast Forward and bought for testing in mid-July from the Rite Aid in downtown Oakland had 20 times the legal limit for lead under federal safety standards. The same store sold a vinyl Rite Aid brand lunchbox, featuring an image of a monster truck, with high levels of lead. Pencil pouches sold under the Bazic brand and containing lead were found at a Food 4 Less in Los Banos.
"We've been in contact with the stores and they're working to remove the product,” said Jim Finefrock, director of communications for the state attorney general's office.
If the retailer does not remove the product, he said, the attorney general can write a warning letter or file a lawsuit. Finefrock said the attorney general's office notified Rite Aid but the violations at Food 4 Less were addressed by the Center for Environmental Health.
Lawyers with the center are taking action against Food 4 Less using the California Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act. The center served the company its 60 day notice of violation at the end of last month. "Our intention is to file a lawsuit after the 60-day period is over," Cox said.
A pencil pouch from Food 4 Less contained high levels of lead.
Food 4 Less representatives could not be reached for comment. Rite Aid spokesperson Ashley Flower told California Watch the company sent a notice to its stores to take the products off the shelves early this month, but no recall was issued. As a result, consumers who may have bought the items with dangerous levels of lead may not know it. Cox said shoppers primarily rely on the news media for information about toxic products, or cases when a retailer puts up a sign warning consumers about the toxic merchandise.
At a recent visit to the Oakland Rite Aid that sold the backpack and lunchbox with high lead levels, California Watch could not find the items on the shelves. A store employee confirmed the products aren't being sold but said she was unaware of the recent findings.
The Center for Environmental Health has been conducting tests on children's products for over a decade. This year's results show improvement compared to tests done in prior years. Out of the 110 Christmas products that the center tested three years ago, about 20 had high levels of lead. Retailers like Walmart, Target, and Toys R Us were found to carry children's products with lead.
Charles Margulis, a spokesperson for Center for Environmental Health, credits the improvement to a 2008 federal law that set a safety standard for lead in children's products. Prior to that law, there was a "patchwork of state laws." Products found to have high lead levels were often dealt with through lawsuits. In 2005, the center sued the manufacturers, distributors and retailers of lead-contaminated soft, vinyl children's lunch boxes.
Since the center began testing consumer products for lead in 1997, it has found high levels of lead in water filters, children's medicine, baby bibs, candy, and diaper creams. “There were dozens, probably hundreds of lawsuits,” Margulis said.
A lunch box was found to have high levels of lead.
Earlier last month, Attorney General Jerry Brown sued several manufacturers of children's bounce houses that were found to have illegal levels of lead. The Center for Environmental Health, working with the attorney general's office, recently finalized settlement agreements to eliminate lead in artificial turf. Lead is often used to stabilize colors in vinyl products.
Children are particularly susceptible to lead exposure. Their brains are still developing and they have smaller body weight, Margulis said. Lead is transferred from hand to mouth.
Colleen You, vice president for health with the California State PTA, said the association has been working to raise awareness about lead in children's products.
"Lead can affect and impair their intellectual development,” You said. “Parents may not be aware that their children have been exposed.” The effects of lead are sometimes mistaken for learning disabilities, she said.
The Center for Environmental Health offers free lead testing from Tuesday to Thursday, 12 to 6 p.m.