There are some things about lead that are not in dispute:
1. that lead causes brain damage;
2. that the effect of lead exposure is the same whether it is ingested, absorbed or inhaled;
3. and for children, there is no safe level of lead in blood – any lead will cause some toxic effect.
Lead is just not good for human bodies. Howard Mielke, an expert in lead poisoning at Tulane University School of Medicine, noted that lead typically affects the prefrontal cortex of the brain — the section that controls decision-making and compulsive behavior. Not surprisingly then, lead poisoning has been tied to everything from higher crime rates and lower test scores to attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and autism.
Lead that accumulates in the bones of a child can also seep back into the blood stream later on in life as bones deteriorate, Mielke said. This can lead to another round of problems, such as increased blood pressure.(1)
Yet it’s in lots of products, including fabrics, where it’s used as a component of dyes and as a stabilizer in PVC. As an illustration of how prevalent lead is in fabrics, Greenpeace did a study of Disney themed clothing items, testing items bought in retail outlets in 19 different countries. Lead was found in all of the products samples, ranging from 0.14 mg/kg to 2,600 mg/kg – an item so toxic that it would be illegal to sell in Denmark.(2) (To see this report click here.)
The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) in the U.S. suggests that the “reference level” for lead in the blood (i.e., the threshold at which health effects are seen) is 5 micrograms per deciliter of blood (or µ/dL). The average lead levels in American children is 1.8 micrograms(3), about half a million children in the U.S. have lead levels higher than 5 micrograms – yet new research shows that any amount of lead can affect health.(4)
In its statement on lead poisoning, the American Academy of Pediatrics says, “Most U.S. children are at sufficient risk that they should have their blood lead concentration measured at least once.”(5)
This is an epidemic which affects not just lower income people, or those living near closed factories which once spewed lead and other toxins into the air. It affects middle class children as well. A new documentary, called MisLEAD: America’s Secret Epidemic, aims to dispel the notion that lead poisoning is confined to low-income communities and to children who eat paint chips (click here to see sample footage http://www.misleadmovie.com/Mislead_Movie/Home.html). This is the YouTube video used for their kickstarter campaign:
Existing legislation on chemicals fails to prohibit the use of hazardous chemicals in consumer products. The high levels of one or other of the hazardous chemicals found in Disney childrenswear are legally allowed. As the Greenpeace study says, “chemically processed textiles contribute to our overall exposure to chemicals from consumer products, as well as providing a more direct route of chemical exposure through contact with the skin.”
So my question to parents is: why would you subject your children to additional – and unnecessary – lead exposure from fabrics? Why wouldn’t you seek out safe fabrics?
(2) Pedersen, Henrik and Hartmann, Jacob, “Toxic Childrenswear by Disney”, Greenpeace, April 2004
(3) Szabo, Liz and Koch, Wendy, “New Lead Poisoning Guidelines: What Parents Should Know”, USA TODAY, 5.18.2012.
(4) Hartocollis, Anemona, “C.D.C. Lowers Recommended Lead-Level Limits in Children”, New York Times, May 16, 2012.
(5) Szabo and Koch, op. cit.