Lead persists as problem in holiday gifts, environmental cost

Lead persists as problem in holiday gifts, environmental cost

Image by Nick Magwood from Pixabay


ANNAPOLIS, Md. – Lead poisoning has hit the news recently with pollution from leaded aviation gasoline, poisoning from applesauce pouches, and federal lead pipe replacement projects. But some lead poisoning threats come during the holiday gift-giving season from jewelry, toys, makeup, and other gifts.

In October, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency highlighted the dangers of lead exposure from leaded gasoline still used by some small planes. Communities near general aviation airports experience disproportionate exposure from emissions, the release said.

The Food and Drug Administration is investigating lead found in cinnamon applesauce pouches sold under WanaBana, Weis and Schnucks brands. As of Nov. 22, there have been 52 cases of elevated blood lead levels in young children potentially linked to these pouches.

On Nov. 30, the EPA announced a proposal to require the replacement of lead service lines nationwide within 10 years, according to a press release. The administration is investing $15 billion in replacing lead service lines, providing technical assistance to communities and developing a national inventory of lead pipes.

“The lead dust equivalent of only three granules of sugar is all it takes to poison a child,” said a University of Maryland Medical Center release.

Added to all those threats during the holiday season is the lead sometimes hidden in common gifts like jewelry, makeup or toys, said Jay Apperson, a spokesperson for the Maryland Department of the Environment. Vintage items or things manufactured in other countries are more likely to be contaminated.

“No child should be left behind because of lead poisoning,” said Apperson. “Public education about the importance of getting tested, along with strong enforcement, will all go a long way towards eradicating lead poisoning.”

Children are the most vulnerable to lead poisoning and experience symptoms like irritability, issues with attention and learning, delayed growth, and hearing issues. Severe cases can cause brain damage and neurological dysfunction, even death. Lead poisoning can impact cardiac health, pregnancy, and hypertension.

In Maryland, children must be tested for blood lead at 12 months and 24 months according to the Maryland Department of Health. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention uses a reference value of 3.5 micrograms per deciliter to identify children with blood lead levels higher than average.

Lead paint found in older homes is a leading cause of lead poisoning, with most childhood exposure coming from hand-to-mouth contact with lead dust.

“If a child has a very elevated blood lead level, that’s almost surely the root cause of lead-based paint. If you get down to these relatively lower levels, say in the 3.5 (micrograms per deciliter) range, then you might need to look at other potential sources that might not be so obvious,” Apperson said.

Inexpensive jewelry has often been found to contain lead. Lead allows metals to be shaped easily and is cheaper than alternatives like zinc, said the California Department of Toxic Substance Control.

“Lead is also sometimes used as a stabilizer in some plastics, such as polyvinyl chloride (PVC), which is often incorporated into children’s jewelry items,” said the department.

Jewelry containing lead is particularly harmful to small children, who may place things in their mouths, which can cause dangerous levels of absorption and an even bigger risk if the item is swallowed.

The CDC discussed one instance in 2016 when an infant was found to have blood lead levels of 41 micrograms per deciliter caused by a natural teething bracelet.

“The parents reported that the child intermittently wore a handmade “homeopathic magnetic hematite healing bracelet” that they had purchased from an artisan at a local fair. The child wore the bracelet for teething-related discomfort and was sometimes noted to chew on it. Small spacer beads from the bracelet tested at the Manchester Health Department were positive for lead,” the report said.

Another common gift item, makeup, can also be a problem. Kohl eyeliners, used in Asian and African cultures for example, may contain large amounts of lead and other metals, according to the FDA.

One 2013 case from the New Mexico Department of Health began when an Afghan refugee family brought eyeliner to the U.S. An Albuquerque clinic reported that a toddler had a blood lead level of 27 micrograms per deciliter linked to the use of kajal eyeliner, the report said. Lab testing later identified the eyeliner’s lead content as 54%.

Dangerous lead levels have also been found in other cosmetics like “Bentonite Me Baby,” a clay product sold by Alikay Naturals in Target and Sally Beauty Supply stores meant to detoxify hair. The FDA advised anyone who used this product to consult a health care professional immediately.

Inexpensive toys can also have lead in paint, metal or plastic. Vintage toys made before 1978, when lead paint was banned for residential use, or imported toys are more likely to contain the substance.

In 2007,  for example, about 253,000 “Sarge” toys, a character from the Cars movie, were recalled by Mattel for containing lead paint, according to the Consumer Product Safety Commission. About 675,000 Mattel Barbie accessory toys were also recalled that same year due to lead paint. Both toys were manufactured in China.

The non-profit organization Kids in Danger said recalls of children’s products due to excessive lead content increased to 19 instances in 2022, the highest rate of lead-related recalls in the last 10 years, according to a 2023 document called “Hidden Hazards: 2022 Children’s Product Recalls.” Nine lead-related recalls were announced in 2020.

“We really have to focus in on what will be permanent eradication of exposure and poisoning and that job needs to be finished,” said Ruth Ann Norton, president and CEO of the Green and Healthy Homes Initiative. “And that takes both funding and diligence.”

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Capital News Service


Capital News Service is a student-powered news organization run by the University of Maryland Philip Merrill College of Journalism. With bureaus in Annapolis and Washington run by professional journalists with decades of experience, they deliver news in multiple formats via partner news organizations and a destination Website.

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