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Misunderstandings & Mischief

IMG_7608From Len
Tamara’s Husband
Communications Director
Lead Safe America Foundation

Look, I’m going to be right up there at the front of the line when it comes to getting lead and other neurotoxic contaminants out of consumer products!

To this end, Lead Safe America tests items that people bring (or send) to us and we share (in a simple straight forward way) the lead-content levels of the various items we test on Facebook (or here in our blog.)

We do this with the clearly stated intention that it is then up to the consumer (or owner of the item) to research the concern and choose (from an educated perspective) whether or not they want to keep using the item (whether or not they feel it poses any risk to themselves or their family.)

Our work is intended as a springboard for consumer awareness and we encourage our followers and fans to do their own research and make informed choices based on the research they do.

Items are tested with an XRF (a top-of-the-line scientific tool used by the Consumer Products Safety Commission) and then we post the XRF readings with the “total lead content” (and also any readings for Cadmium, Mercury, Arsenic or other “nasties” that we find.)

We’re not saying, nor even implying, that any particular item (the mixing bowls pictured here, for example) are particularly poisoning you or your family directly. We (as a small grassroots nonprofit) do not even approach having the resources to do the level of testing where we could even begin to honestly assess the specific risk of any one item based solely on an XRF reading.

Our statement is this: “THIS ITEM HAS LEAD, go forth and figure out what you think you should do about it.” As no one was testing the countless consumer items found in millions of homes throughout our country, we thought it would be useful to try to begin to amass the humble beginnings of a sort of informal database of as much of this stuff as we could find and manage to test—starting out with virtually no financial resources to cover this program, because the total absence of any information about this unfathomably huge sea of THINGS that we and our little ones come into daily contact with—some of which do turn out to be quite hazardous to our health—was pretty troubling!

In some cases the amount of total lead may seem high, but may actually be within regulatory specifications. For example: there IS NO REGULATION for TOTAL LEAD CONTENT IN DISHWARE or COOKWARE – so for a piece to have 200 ppm lead or 40,000 ppm lead is TOTALLY LEGAL and “Prop 65 compliant” as long as it is labeled properly and/or leach tested.

THERE IS – HOWEVER – A REGULATION for how much lead can be in a NEW ITEM sold specifically AS INTENDED FOR CHILDREN – [a toy or a baby cup for example.] The lead content cap/ limit of such an item is 90 ppm lead (for it to be considered “safe.”)

A dish (or piece of clothing, or jewelry or a purse) can legally have more than 90 ppm lead and be considered “safe” and “compliant” as long as it is not sold as an “item intended for children.”

That said – a company selling items (like dishes) that are not specifically intended for children is not breaking any law or standard by selling items with lead content over 90 ppm lead.

It’s axiomatic that we (you – the reader & Lead Safe America) share a common goal of getting these dangerous industrial pollutants out of our kids’ environments! But it is counter-productive to that goal to make assumptions and jump to misinformed conclusions without doing your research and fully understanding the considerations and specifics involved.

It’s difficult sometimes to get “from here to there” when you have kids underfoot and other distractions that might keep you from fully understanding the nuances, but it is important that if you are going to contact companies and request change that you do the research and more fully understand the nuances – as not doing your homework could alienate potential allies in this noble effort!

Specifically I am referring to a few recent incidents in which concerned, well-intentioned individuals (folks who follow our posts here and on Facebook) who—armed with only partial understanding of the sometimes complex and subtle world of testing methodologies, measurements and standards—have wrongly accused/confronted manufacturers or retailers of consumer goods – companies which in fact are doing all they can to do the right thing – manufacturers who are in fact “in compliance” with existing standards.

The problem in most cases is NOT these manufacturers (run by folks with good intentions and doing everything to comply) but is – the STANDARDS and REGULATIONS and SPECIFIC LANGUAGE of those standards and regulations leading to misunderstandings.

We must, as parents and as consumers, advocate for clear and precise standards and equally clear and precise language from our regulating agencies, so that the companies that are actually doing a really good job of “getting the lead out” to the best of their ability can be lauded for their efforts in the space of a fairly murky world of conflicting language and standards imposed by different public regulatory agencies that really don’t seem to be talking to each other or taking each others standards into consideration when determining their own.

It’s understandable that when our children’s health is at stake, we have a tendency to feel anger—even outrage—upon learning of what may look like yet another apparent example of  profits-over-people corporate failure to safeguard the industrial supply chain from these toxicants finding their way into consumer products!

In some cases, the problem is exacerbated by specific marketing language chosen by the manufacturer. The manufacturer themselves may not actually understand the nuances in the different testing methodologies and may make a claim that is not true out of misinformation. In a case like that it is our job (as consumers) to help inform them so they can choose more appropriate language (and also – hopefully – make every effort to source materials that are completely toxicant free.)

AN EXAMPLE:  A manufacturer markets a dish as “lead-free”, because the industry-standard leach-test method of testing (which they dutifully did) showed “no detectable lead” was found to be leaching from the item. Their interpretation of “no detectable lead” is that the item is “lead-free”. However  a subsequent alternative method of testing (X-ray florescence) may reveal that even though the item “passed” leach testing standards for lead – the ceramic matrix and/or glaze actually does contain a trace amount of lead (an amount of lead that was measurable yet not detectible with the methodology used by the industry in question.) So therefore the item is not actually “lead-free”, but the industry assumes it to be because they use one specific method of testing.

To be clear also – the “leach testing” method for testing is a gold standard. If an item is leach tested at the time of manufacture it is most likely safe to eat from. [For more about our concerns about leach testing and subsequent product deterioration – read here.]

In such a scenario it is essential to understand the scientific and health implications (as distinct and separate from possible “big picture” environmental or political implications). The second test doesn’t invalidate or contradict the first; it doesn’t necessarily imply any dishonesty, fraud—or indeed any higher level of threat for that matter! It does however reveal a need to change the language that the purveyors of the item should use to avoid inaccuracy/inadvertant falsity in claims and consequent consumer ire!

When mere traces of lead (or cadmium, arsenic, etc.) are found using the super-accuracy of the XRF analysis method, the label/claim really should be changed from “lead-free” to “lead-safe” /no detectable lead per leach testing”, or some equally rigorously true linguistic formulation. A Solution: Manufacturers should be encouraged to perform both methods of testing to protect themselves from these potentially false claims.

But as I said, this is a largely a linguistic matter; while no amount of lead is acceptable in our children’s lives –  if we fail to responsibly distinguish between trace levels of a contaminant and levels orders of magnitude higher that have been scientifically determined to actually pose a threat, then we run the risk of losing the battle to first be taken seriously, and then to influence and win over the fence-sitters that we need on our side!

Undermining the credibility and political good will of those at the front lines of this movement day in and day out does more harm than good.  Instead of confronting manufacturers as adversaries, approach them with the intention of educating them, especially those who are effectively working to foster cooperation and willingness to take on the often formidable resistance to change that is our collective mission as parents, environmentalists and aware, engaged citizens.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

As always, please also remember that first and foremost the greatest lead-threat in our children’s lives is NOT from our dishes and possessions – it is from the historic/legacy lead paint in our homes and the lead-contaminated soil surrounding them.


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