Lead poisoning: Are your child's toys safe?

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Lead poisoning: Are your child's toys safe?

Lead poisoning and toy recalls — answers from a Mayo Clinic specialist.

Photo of Jay Hoecker, M.D.
Jay Hoecker, M.D.

In the United States, lead-based paint is banned from use in homes, toys and furniture. Yet toy recalls have left parents scrambling to pull toys coated in lead-based paint from their children's toy boxes. What's going on? And what do you need to know to protect your child from lead poisoning? Here's some practical advice from Jay Hoecker, M.D., a pediatrics specialist at Mayo Clinic, Rochester, Minn.

What triggers a toy recall?

In the United States, toy manufacturers are required to report any significant safety concerns to the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) — such as small parts that can be dislodged and pose a choking hazard or the use of paint containing lead. In turn, the CPSC may issue toy recalls as needed. Recent toy recalls have focused on toys imported from China that don't meet U.S. safety requirements.

Why is lead-based paint such a concern?

Lead is a natural element that's present throughout the environment. It's possible to breathe or swallow lead particles from chips of lead-based paint or contaminated food, water, dust, soil or other products. Although brief or limited exposure to lead-based paint or other sources of lead isn't likely to cause lead poisoning, exposure to even low levels of lead can be harmful over time — especially in children.

In extreme cases, lead poisoning may eventually cause speech, language and behavior problems, poor coordination and slowed growth. The most severe cases of lead poisoning may cause seizures, as well as permanent brain and kidney damage. Rarely, lead poisoning can be fatal.

Should I be concerned if my child played with a toy that's been recalled due to lead-based paint?

It's important to take toy recalls seriously. If your child has any toys that have been recalled, don't allow your child to continue playing with them — even if the toys look safe. Remember to keep the situation in perspective, however. Exposure to a recalled toy isn't likely to cause long-term problems, even if your child swallowed a paint chip from the toy. What's important is removing the toy — and any other sources of lead — from your home as soon as possible.

If your child played with the recalled toy for an extended period of time or the toy's paint is chipping, ask your child's doctor about a blood test to check for lead poisoning.

How common is lead poisoning?

Thankfully, lead poisoning is relatively uncommon. Thanks to public health efforts — such as the widespread use of unleaded gasoline, restrictions on the use of lead in water pipes and the ban on consumer sales of lead-based paint — fewer children are affected by lead poisoning than ever before. According to estimates from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the percentage of children with elevated levels of lead in their blood has decreased from more than 4 percent in the early 1990s to less than 2 percent among children ages 1 to 5. Children who live in older homes, especially in inner city areas, may be at highest risk.

How can I tell if my child has been exposed to too much lead?

Lead poisoning can be tough to detect. Even children who appear healthy can have elevated levels of lead in their blood. As the severity of lead poisoning increases, you might notice vague warning signs, such as irritability, weight loss and sluggishness. Your child might complain of abdominal pain, vomiting and constipation. If the level of lead continues to increase, learning difficulties or behavioral problems might become an issue.

Lead poisoning is diagnosed with a simple blood test. Again, if you're concerned about lead poisoning, ask your child's doctor about testing.

How is lead poisoning treated?

If your child has mild lead poisoning, the only treatment is avoiding exposure to lead. Continued observation or repeat testing may be recommended. If the level of lead in your child's blood is high enough, your child may need to take an oral medication that binds with the lead so that it's excreted in his or her urine. This is known as chelation therapy.

How can I lower my child's risk of lead exposure from toys?

When you're buying toys, you might select those that were manufactured in the United States. Choose age-appropriate toys, and read warning labels carefully. If you're concerned about a particular toy's safety, contact the manufacturer directly.

In addition, consider other ways to protect your child from lead poisoning:

  • Make sure your home is safe. Hire a professional to inspect your home for lead hazards. Home lead tests may not be reliable.
  • Use tap water carefully. If your home has lead pipes, run cold tap water for at least a minute before using it — especially if the faucet hasn't been used for a while — and don't use hot tap water for cooking or to make baby formula.
  • Keep it clean. Make sure your child washes his or her hands after playing outside, before eating and before going to bed. Clean noncarpeted floors with a wet mop. Wipe furniture, windowsills and other dusty surfaces with a damp cloth. Repaint or paper walls with peeling paint, especially in older homes.
  • Know where your child plays. Don't let your child play near major roads or bridges. If you live near major roads, ask your child's doctor about periodic testing for lead poisoning.
  • Serve healthy foods. Foods high in iron and calcium help prevent lead from being absorbed into the bloodstream.

Remember, brief or limited exposure to lead isn't likely to cause lead poisoning. If you're concerned about your child's exposure to lead, ask his or her doctor about testing.

Last Updated: 11/01/2007
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