How Gov't Decided Lunch Box Lead Levels
Sunday, February 18, 2007; 11:19 PM
-- In 2005, when government scientists tested 60 soft, vinyl lunch boxes, they found that one in five contained amounts of lead that medical experts consider unsafe _ and several had more than 10 times hazardous levels.
But that's not what they told the public.
Instead, the Consumer Product Safety Commission released a statement that they found "no instances of hazardous levels." And they refused to release their actual test results, citing regulations that protect manufacturers from having their information released to the public.
That data was not made public until The Associated Press received a box of about 1,500 pages of lab reports, in-house e-mails and other records in response to a Freedom of Information Act request filed a year ago.
The documents describe two types of tests. One involves cutting a chunk of vinyl off the bag, dissolving it and then analyzing how much lead is in the solution; the second test involves swiping the surface of a bag and then determining how much lead has rubbed off.
The results of the first type of test, looking for the actual lead content of the vinyl, showed that 20 percent of the bags had more than 600 parts per million of lead _ the federal safe level for paint and other products. The highest level was 9,600 ppm, more than 16 times the federal standard.
But the CPSC did not use those results.
"When it comes to a lunch box, it's carried. The food that you put in the lunch box may have an outer wrapping, a baggie, so there isn't direct exposure. The direct exposure would be if kids were putting their lunch boxes in their mouth, which isn't a common way for children to interact with their lunch box," said CPSC spokeswoman Julie Vallese.
Thus the CPSC focused exclusively on how much lead came off the surface of a lunch box when lab workers swiped them.
For the swipe tests, the results were lower, especially after the researchers changed their testing protocol. After a handful of tests, they increased the number of times they swiped each bag, again and again on the same spot, resulting in lower average results.
An in-house e-mail from the director of the CPSC's chemistry division explained that they had been retesting with the new protocol "which gave a lower average result than the prior report ... ," he wrote. "This shows ... that the overall risk is lower than our original testing would have showed, as the amount of lead dislodgeable is mostly taken out with the first wipe and goes down with subsequent wipes."
Vallese explained it this way: "The more you wipe, the less lead you actually find. With fewer wipes we got a higher detection of lead presence. We thought more wipes was closer to reflecting how you would interact with your lunch box. It was more realistic."