THIS holiday season has brought an explosion of "toxic toys" fears - ground less ones. And Congress is moving ahead with a bill that would add to the hysteria.
Yes, the Consumer Product Safety Commission has issued more recall notices than ever before for toys with lead paint - over 50 this year - but that's mostly not because the toys are actually dangerous. The problem is that the CPSC is obliged by law to sound the alarm and ban the toys - because Congress had mandated such a warning when it wrote the lead-paint standard back in 1978, when it was concerned about lead-containing house paint.
One type of recall was justified - those of kids' jewelry, which did contain very high levels of lead, rivaling and in some cases exceeding the amount of lead in pre-'70s paint. Because necklaces and chains are also likely to be mouthed, they're truly dangerous and can (and in some cases did) cause acute lead poisoning.
Lead is indeed a serious toxicant that can exert adverse affects, given sufficient exposure. But we've eliminated the major sources of exposure - such as lead-based gasoline and the reduction of lead in paint used in homes - so childhood lead poisoning is no longer a widespread threat.
And most of the banned toys just don't hold enough lead to pose a meaningul risk. Until the '70s, paint typically had 500,000 parts per million (ppm) of lead. Today, federal law allows ony 600 ppm. The only kids at risk today are those exposed to old, peeling paint in homes - not small amounts of paint on toys just above the current standard.
The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) calls for specific clinical action only when blood lead levels exceed 20 micrograms per deciliter of blood. But such levels are now rare, found mainly in children living in dilapidated inner-city apartments.
For the rest of the population, lead poisoning is no longer a serious health concern. CDC advises monitoring at just 10 micrograms; nearly nine out of every 10 American children were at this level in the '70s. But today, CDC reports, only slightly more than one in 100 kids is over the 10 microgram level - and most of those are in the 10-14 range.
Yet Congress is moving to act against this non-threat anyway. In the name of protecting us from "toxic toys," a bill passed by the House (407 to 0) on Wednesday would force CPSC to apply rigid and unscientific standards for lead exposure.
The politicians' stampede isn't surprising - consumers are already scared to death of "toxic toys." News stories on the recalls (and pictures of Marines doing "search and destroy" missions on items slated for Toys for Tots delivery) don't mention that the law obliges CPSC to ban products that don't actually pose a threat.
But the proposal is still wrong: Over four years, the new law would lower the standard from an already precautionary 600 ppm of lead in paint to 100 ppm. And even that level isn't low enough for activist groups (such as Greenpeace), who are calling for even lower levels.
Their rallying cry is the utterly unscientific claim "there is no safe level of exposure to lead." (Hmm: If zero is the only safe level, why they are calling for a standard of 40 ppm?)
Some advocates even claim that very low levels of lead in the blood are responsible for attention deficit disorder and even criminal activity - a theory that's not only utterly speculative, but fails to match the simple fact that cases of ADD have gone up in recent decades even as blood lead levels have fallen.
CPSC spokesman Scott Wolfson confirmed the agency has no discretion when it comes to paint in children's toys. They cannot differentiate between toys for teething toddlers versus games for 12-year-olds, nor can they consider whether a speck of paint in excess of the standard constitutes a threat. In March, the agency had to recall easels because the small amount of paint on one side exceeded the federal standard.
Toys must be safe - but forcing the CPSC to apply unreasonable standards based on junk science claims promotes only panic, not safety.