Data on lead levels not used in report
Vinyl lunch boxes safe, officials said
NEW YORK -- In 2005, when government scientists tested 60 soft, vinyl lunch boxes, they found that 1 in 5 contained amounts of lead that medical specialists consider unsafe -- and several had more than 10 times the hazardous levels.
But that's not what they told the public.
Instead, the Consumer Product Safety Commission released a statement that it found "no instances of hazardous levels." And it refused to release its test results, citing regulations that protect manufacturers from having their information released to the public.
That data were not made public until the Associated Press received a box of about 1,500 pages of laboratory 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, and then analyzing how much lead is in the solution; the second test involves swiping the surface of a bag and then determining how much lead has rubbed off.
The results of the first type of test, looking for the lead content of the vinyl, showed that 20 percent of the bags had more than 600 parts per million of lead -- the federal safe level for paint and other products. The highest level was 9,600 parts per million , more than 16 times the federal standard. But the safety 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 safety commission spokeswoman Julie Vallese.
So the safety 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 researchers changed their testing protocol.
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.
"We thought more wipes was closer to reflecting how you would interact with your lunch box. It was more realistic," Vallese said.
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 its tests, the safety commission 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 15-30 days, in order for the lunch box to present a health hazard."
Vallese said the commission stands by those statements.
But the results were disconcerting to specialists who reviewed them for the AP.
"They found levels that we consider very high," said Alexa Engelman, a researcher at the Center for Environmental Health in Oakland, Calif., which has filed legal complaints about lead in lunchboxes.