If you're packing your child's lunches in a soft vinyl lunch box, you'd be wise to check for lead. Lead is a dangerous neurotoxin that is particularly harmful to a young child's developing brain and nervous system. Even at extremely low levels, it can impair cognitive and physical development. So what is it doing in lunch boxes?

Lead is often added to vinyl as a stabilizer.  It's cheap, it's flexible, and it helps vinyl bounce back to its original shape. "Of all the metals, lead is the cheapest and easiest to use," says Mary Jean Brown, chief of the Lead Poisoning Prevention Program at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) . "Think about a vinyl lunch box—you can mash it up. You can basically run it over with your car and it will keep its shape."

Trouble comes when vinyl gets exposed to sunlight and air. Then the chemical bond between the lead and the plastic breaks down and creates lead-laden dust. Kids can easily touch specks of lead dust and unknowingly ingest it. "There is no safe blood lead level for kids," says Brown.

If you click on the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission's Web site, however, you'll get a different impression. This federal agency tested 60 lunch boxes for lead in 2005 and got readings of less than 1 microgram. "This is an extremely low level of lead and does not present a health hazard to children," the official site stated.

What gives? Is lead in a lunch box dangerous or isn't it?

The nonprofit Center for Environmental Health, based in Oakland, California, tested lunch boxes in 2005 and found 25 percent contained lead. "A lunch box doesn't cause acute lead poisoning," says Charlie Cox, the center's associate director. "But lead's impact is accumulative."

Brown agrees: "A child gets a little bit of lead from a lunch box, and little bit from water, and a little bit more from lead dust in the house. We need to take lead out where we can."

Lead hits kids hard since it's a neurotoxin and young brains are growing quickly. Lead can permanently damage not only a child's brain but her hearing and kidneys, too. And lead doesn't stop there. Adults can suffer a wide range of problems, from mood disorders to blindness. Lead accumulates in the body over a lifetime. A 10-year-old girl with lead in her blood carries the poison into adult life, and when she becomes pregnant it can ultimately damage the fetus.

The safety of a lead-vinyl lunch box depends on how you look at it. In its testing, the federal Consumer Product Safety Commission assumed that all food was wrapped in plastic bags. The California nonprofit worried about kids being kids. "We assumed kids do nutty things, like a kid whose candy bar melts inside the lunch box so he licks it up. Or kids who set their sandwiches down directly on the lunch box," says Caroline Cox, also from the Center for Environmental Health.

Most lead poisoning still comes from lead paint in poorly maintained older homes, or from renovation that disturbs old lead paint. But since it all adds up, experts warn parents to keep their children away from unnecessary sources of lead, like vinyl lunch boxes.

What you can do

  • Buy a metal lunch box or a reusable cloth or canvas bag.
  • Buy a lead test kit at your local hardware store (they cost about $10). Tests made for paint work well on vinyl; just wipe the outer surface of the lunch box and the inside liner. Use extra test strips for paint, other vinyl items or old toys around the house.
    If your child's lunch box tests positive for lead, call your local waste officials and ask them to accept it as hazardous material. Unless lead is disposed of properly, it keeps poisoning people. Contact the retailer who sold you the lunch box and ask him to stop selling toxic products intended for use by kids. Return the bag, and ask the store to dispose of it responsibly (not landfilled or incinerated).
  • Sixteen major lunch box manufacturers have signed agreements to renounce lead. Look for tags that say "Lead-free" or "EVA" plastic.  
  • If you're worried about your exposure to lead, ask your doctor for a blood test. Most insurance companies cover it, and Medicare will pay for it.

Photo credit: J Pagel / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0


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