BY MARTHA MENDOZA AP NATIONAL WRITER
When government scientists tested lunch boxes, they found one in five contained amounts of lead medical experts consider unsafe. Several had more than 10 times hazardous levels when the 60 soft, vinyl lunch boxes were tested in 2005. 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, then analyzing how much lead is in the solution; the second test involves swiping a bag's surface, then determining how much lead has rubbed off. The results of the first type of test, looking for the actual lead content, showed 20 percent of the bags had more than 600 parts per million of lead -- the federal safe level. The highest level was 9,600 ppm, more than 16 times the federal standard. But the commission 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 spokeswoman Julie Vallese.
SURFACE TESTED Thus the commission 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 testing protocol changed. 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 commission's chemistry division explained they had been retesting with the new protocol "which gave a lower average result than the prior report ... "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," he wrote. "The more you wipe," Vallese said, "the less lead you actually find. We thought more wipes was closer to reflecting how you would interact with your lunch box. It was more realistic." The test results also show that many lunch boxes were tested only on the outside, which is unlikely to be in contact with food. Vallese said this was because children handle their lunch boxes from the outside. As a result of their tests, the commssion issued a public statement last year reassuring consumers they had nothing to worry about: "Based on the extremely low levels of lead found in our tests, in most cases, children would have to rub their lunch box and then lick their hands more than 600 times every day, for about 15 to 30 days, in order for the lunch box to present a health hazard." Vallese said the commission stands by those statements.
RESULTS UPSETTING But the results were disconcerting to experts who reviewed them for the AP. "They found levels that we consider very high," said Alexa Engelman, a researcher at the Oakland, Calif.-based Center for Environmental Health, which has filed a series of legal complaints. "They knew this all along and they didn't take action on it. Why are we, as a country, protecting the companies? We should be protecting the kids. I don't think in this instance they did their job." Although these test results are only now being aired publicly, the commission did provide them to the Food and Drug Administration last summer. In July, after receiving the test results, the FDA sent a letter to lunch box manufacturers warning them their lead levels might be dangerously high and advising them that the FDA might take action against them because the lead would be considered a food additive if it rubbed off onto kids' lunches.
RESPONSE TO WARNING In response to the FDA warning, Wal-Mart stopped selling soft lunchboxes with vinyl liners, and offered refunds. Other manufacturers have recently revamped their manufacturing processes to eliminate lead, or stopped making the boxes altogether. Those changes have been prompted in large part by pressure from the Center for Environmental Health and several other nonprofit advocacy groups that have been testing boxes and publicly airing the results. Lead is a stabilizing agent in vinyl, but there are other chemicals that can be used instead of lead. Allen Blakey, a spokesman for the Vinyl Institute, a trade association representing the leading vinyl manufacturers, said his organization defers to the regulatory agencies. Public health experts consider elevated levels of lead in blood a significant health hazard for U.S. children. Studies have repeatedly shown that childhood exposure to lead can lead to learning problems, reduced intelligence, hyperactivity and attention deficit disorder. There is no lead level that is considered safe in blood, and recent studies have shown adverse health effects even at very low levels.
BY MARTHA MENDOZA AP NATIONAL WRITER