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Something Extra in the Lunchbox

 

After packing my son’s lunch this morning and sending him off to school with his dad, I settled in with a cup of coffee and did my ritual: I read headlines from across the country. I was shocked to read a report on CNN that many vinyl lunch boxes, like the one my son has, contain unsafe amounts of lead. The report states that in 2005, government scientists, after testing sixty varieties of soft, vinyl lunchboxes, found that one in five contained lead levels medical experts consider unsafe—and several had “ten times hazardous levels.”

The article also states the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) then released a statement finding “no instances of hazardous levels.” This meant manufacturers of these lunch boxes didn’t have to recall lunch boxes or make changes and very few retailers pulled them from shelves.

Granted, when reading further, it seems that these lunch boxes would only become severely toxic if children licked the inner lining or bit the handles. Nevertheless, clearly, any finger brushing the inside of the fabric could get some lead on it that could be transferred to the mouth. Aren’t we supposed to be limiting the amount of lead our children are exposed to? Especially since there are already so many hidden ways our children are exposed to lead. (For more information, see: “The Toxic Truth Behind Lead Poisoning.”)

Once again, I felt duped by the powers that be in our country. Four years ago, when living in Los Angeles, I went through my own lead scare, and to say I became educated about the dangers of lead is an understatement.

It all started with a Ladies Home Journal article that my dear friend in Santa Monica read revealing how a couple in Maine poisoned their children when renovating their old home. Since my friend lived in a house built in the 1940s (and lead was in paint until the late 1970s), she decided to test her fifteen-month-old son for lead. Surprisingly, her pediatrician refused, saying she didn’t “fit the demographic”—meaning she didn’t live in a run-down house where lead chips are often found. Luckily, she found another, more educated pediatrician, who tested her son and low and behold, he did have a low-dose of lead poisoning. This discovery inspired her to hire a lead-certified contractor to replace all her window frames and over-see the “containment of lead” in her house.

 Since I lived in a house built around the same time, I, too, decided to test my son. I was in for a shock as well. Not only did my son have a low dose of lead exposure, a doctor who worked with my pediatrician had just found out his two-year-old daughter was poisoned as well. As I waited in the lobby of the offices where my son had his blood drawn, I listened sadly to the physician tell me that after years of testing young patients for lead, his own daughter had lead poisoning at a level of 10 micrograms per deciliter of blood—the amount the CDC considers the lowest level of toxicity. (Experts, however, believe as little as 2.5 mcg/dl can be toxic.) The little girl was poisoned when staying with her grandma who was having a bathroom retiled. Very few contractors will tell you—maybe they are unaware—that tile often contains higher levels of lead than old paint. When the tiles are ripped out, invisible lead dust leaks into the air, and can be inhaled or can fall onto toys that can be put into children’s mouths.

Luckily, my son’s lead level was around 2 micrograms per deciliter, so I didn’t need to worry too much. But it set me on a journey to learn all I could about how children are exposed to lead. I wrote a cover article for Fit Pregnancy magazine and was able to interview experts with the CDC and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). I also interviewed experts, such as Sandra Steingraber, PhD, an ecologist at Cornell University, who researches the effects of toxins on the fetus, and Herbert Needleman, MD, a professor of child psychiatry and pediatrics at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine whose research helped convince the government to ban leaded gasoline.

What I learned is that any level of lead in the blood stream is toxic and low doses can cause learning disabilities, hyperactivity, and aggressiveness—high levels can cause irreversible brain damage. Not only can children be exposed at old playgrounds with equipment that has peeling paint, but also through drinking water or, most commonly, during renovations.

After living in Los Angeles, we moved to Atlanta and bought a 1929 bungalow in one of the oldest in-town neighborhoods. As we were considering a renovation, I called around to find lead-certified contractors—none could be found easily and many of the largest firms in town assured me that lead wasn’t an issue. My home was built in 1929! I finally called a governmental office and after hours of waiting and transfers and call backs, I finally got a referral to a lead-certified abatement specialist who told me that just that week, one of my neighbors had poisoned all three of her children by having them sand down molding before painting. Lead dust was leached up into the air through the use of electric, revolving sanders, and all three of her children had to be hospitalized and have chelation therapy. Frankly, I’m not surprised the mom didn’t know about lead as no contractors in Atlanta even told me that I might want to move my then two-year-old out of the house when renovating a bathroom.  

Now, living in London, where all houses and flats are obviously old, hardly anyone ever moves out during a renovation. It seems that Europe hasn’t heard about the dangers of lead. But in America, the CDC, the EPA, and other experts such as Dr. Needleham, have been preaching the dangers of lead for almost thirty years. We know better. Why do you think realtors now require new homeowners to sign paperwork stating they understand the potential dangers of lead?

So how is it possible that government officials thought it fine not to report lead levels found in children lunch boxes? And, sadly, we now know that some vitamins also contain lead. A few weeks ago, I received an email forwarding an article outlining how lead has been found in some The Vitamin Shoppe Multivitamins—including Flintstones Complete. Others include Centrum Silver, Member’s Mark Complete Multi (distributed by Sam’s Club), and One A Day Women’s.

I used to take One a Day Women’s vitamins. After chatting with Sandra Steinberger four years ago, I learned that lead can pass across the placenta to the growing fetus—so it’s possible I poisoned my son with the One A Day Women’s vitamins I took before becoming pregnant. Sadly, I’ll never know. I do know, after chatting with Dr. Needleman, who undoubtedly saved millions of children from lead poisoning through his efforts to ban leaded gasoline, the best defense is to eat a diet rich in calcium, zinc, and iron, as they help block lead absorption. So while we may not be able to control all the ways we are exposed to lead, we can hopefully limit its damage. I guess we now need to ensure that these nutritional sources aren’t served within vinyl lunch boxes or come solely from vitamins. What are your thoughts?

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