Lead-Testing Kits Under Fire

By Annys Shin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Parents afraid of lead lurking on the surface of every Dora, Elmo or Curious George now have something else to worry about: whether their lead-testing kits work.

The Consumer Product Safety Commission said yesterday that such tests were "unreliable," while Consumer Reports declared some lead-testing kits a "useful, though limited, screening tool."

The CPSC said commonly available test kits that rely on chemical reactions involving rhodizonate ion or sulfide ion didn't detect lead when it was present or did when it wasn't. None of the kits detected lead when it was covered with a non-lead coating.

"Based on the study, consumers should not use lead test kits to evaluate consumer products for potential lead hazards," the agency concluded.

But the CPSC's findings contradict a forthcoming Consumer Reports study that examined five home lead-testing kits and concluded that three of the five kits identified accessible lead in toys, ceramic dishware, and vinyl or plastic. The magazine recommended the Homax LeadCheck, Lead Check Household Lead Test Kit and Lead Inspector.

The CPSC didn't identify the kits it tested because by law it can't release information about a product without the manufacturer's approval.

CPSC spokeswoman Julie Vallese said she couldn't comment on the Consumer Reports findings without seeing their test results or knowing their methods.

Based on the agency's tests, "the science is not there for consumers to get the information they need from testing consumer products," she said.

Carolyn Clifford-Ferrara, senior director of product safety operations for Consumer Reports didn't know why the CPSC tests produced a different outcome. The magazine's lab testing confirmed results from the three kits Consumer Reports recommends, and the kits did not produce false negatives, she said.

Whom should consumers believe?

"The CPSC findings are correct." Lead-testing kits "can't be the end all for what parents rely on," said Ruth Ann Norton, executive director of the Coalition to End Childhood Lead Poisoning. Norton said she found the kits unreliable in detecting lead paint, which is what they were designed for.

Ed Mierzwinski, consumer program director for U.S. PIRG, which publishes an annual survey of dangerous toys, staked out the middle ground, advising consumers to use one of the Consumer Reports-recommended test kits as "one of your layers of defense against toxic hazards. But it shouldn't be the only one."

The one thing everyone agrees on is if you want to know whether a toy is toxic, you have to send it to a lab.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company