Made in China with lead or other toxins
Every day it seems we learn of new products that were made in China being recalled because they contain lead and/or other harmful substances. From the food we eat or feed our pets to personal hygiene products like toothpaste to the toys we give our children, "made in China" is becoming the new "skull and crossbones" warning label. In May of 2006 we reported on a Russian ban on Norwegian salmon due to elevated levels of the heavy metal cadmium. It turned out that the cadmium had been fed to the fish as a result of contaminated batches of the mineral supplement zinc sulphate, which was added to the fish food and had been imported from China. Since then, the trickle of "isolated" contamination events of Chinese made products has turned into a raging torrent of product recalls. Although one can't help but wonder if the problem existed all along and the sudden torrent of recalls is simply because more attention is being paid to this issue.
A review of product recalls on the Consumer Product Safety Commission's website that were posted between January 1, 2007 and August 17, 2007 found 36 recalls of products (mostly for children) that contained unacceptable levels of lead or other chemical hazards. Of those 36 recalls (which each can represent dozens of products) 33 were for products manufactured in China (which includes 2 recalls for products from Hong Kong), 2 were for products manufactured in India, and 1 had no country of origin listed. This means that on average for the beginning of 2007, the CPSC was issuing a recall for products that posed an unacceptable lead or chemical danger every single week. Also of the 36 recalls, 21 were for children's costume jewelry (19 from China, 2 from India).
On top of the CPSC recalls there was also a well publicized ban on some farmed fish from China, a toothpaste scare where many brands of toothpaste imported from China turned out to contain the poisonous chemical diethylene glycol, and contaminated wheat gluten which had found its way into pet and livestock feed.
For the most part, goods imported into the United States are not inspected or tested by government agencies for safety. Rather, the responsibility for ensuring the safety of products being imported is left to the companies importing the goods. Commonly it is only when a problem is discovered that government agencies like the Consumer Product Safety Commission step in and investigate the situation.
The risks posed by lead
Lead is a serious health risk for infants, children, and women of child bearing age. In children lead can cause: nervous system and kidney damage; learning disabilities including attention deficit disorder and decreased intelligence; speech, language, and behavioral problems; etc. In adults lead can cause: increase chances of illness during pregnancy; harm a fetus including causing brain damage; fertility problems; nervous system disorders; memory and concentration problems; etc. High levels of lead exposure can cause seizures, unconsciousness, and even death (source CPSC publication: "Protect Your Family From Lead In Your Home" – PDF). Lead can enter the blood stream via ingestion or inhalation.
Home test kits
Consumers can protect their children from potentially ingesting lead by getting home lead test kits and testing products around one's home. There are two different styles of kits. One style requires the consumer to take samples and mail them in to the testing laboratory. The other style of test kit can show test results immediately without being mailed in. We have not tested any of these kits so we can not make recommendations as to what works best. When buying these tests online, be really careful to buy them from a reliable source. Another source for these test kits are pottery supply stores that sell "raw materials" (e.g. clays, glazes, kilns, etc.). The types of products that should be tested are those that a child could be put in their mouth, could be eaten, or could come in contact with food either directly or indirectly (e.g. crystal glasses, dishes, hands, etc.). It should be noted that most garden hoses do contain lead and are not safe to drink water from unless the hose is labeled as safe for potable water. Also, most Christmas tree lights contain lead and one should wash their hands after handling these lights and before handling any food.
Food for thought
Do you know where your food comes from? The odds are that some of the food every American ate today, or at least some ingredients in the processed food they ate, came from China because China is the number one exporter of food to the United States, with food imports from China doubling between 2004 and 2007. In fact, China now supplies around 80% of the world's supply of ascorbic acid (vitamin C) and much of the world's supply of vitamin B-12. So, if you run down the ingredient list of any food you buy and it includes "ascorbic acid" you can be almost certain that the ascorbic acid came from China. Making matters worse of the imported products the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is responsible for inspecting, only one percent of them actually get inspected with only half of those inspections including analytical testing (source NPR). By comparison, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) inspects nearly 16% of meat and poultry imported into the U.S. (source USA Today).
In spite of only inspecting one percent of imports they are responsible for inspecting, in July 2007 alone the FDA refused entry for products from China 130 times. Reasons blocking Chinese food imports included: unapproved ingredients; poisonous substances and/or unsafe additives; being contaminated with animal drugs and/or pesticides; being tainted with salmonella; etc. Between August 2006 and July 2007, the FDA refused the importation of products from China around 1,877 times. Think about this for a minute; the FDA inspects only one percent of imports and still rejected Chinese goods 1,877 times. So just how much unsafe food made it past FDA inspectors and onto the dinner table of American households?
Avoid products that are most commonly hazardous
Looking at the recall list below, one can see a trend that the cheapest goods are on the recall list the most. It also seems that it is very common for tainted, dangerous, and/or counterfeit goods to end up at deep discount and/or dollar type stores. This is another point where one can vote with their wallet. Do not shop at these types of stores. Especially do not buy children cheap toys or jewelry from these discount and/or dollar stores and don't let them buy toy jewelry from vending machines. In fact, with the way things are going, one should not buy their children any of the really cheap costume jewelry because it seems to be recalled for lead the most of any product type.
Buying toys made in America, in Western European countries or other countries that have strict product safety laws can greatly reduce the risk of getting defective or contaminated products. Yes, a wooden train set that is made in the U.S.A. might be more expensive that a Chinese made equivalent, but we all know toddlers and young children put everything in their mouths and the cheaper price of the Chinese version of the toy just isn't worth the potential health risks of a child ingesting lead.
Take action and demand better product safety
Consumers should write their elected officials, including the President, and ask them to enact as well as enforce measures that would help improve inspection programs to ensure the safety of imported products. Consumers should also make their demands for safe products known by using their wallets. Boycotting Chinese made toys and/or goods would be an appropriate way to get China's attention, such that they make real reforms not just hold show trials and make empty promises. Ask grocery stores to disclose the country of origin for all fish, meats, and produce. When possible, buy produce from local farmer's markets or grow your own (home grown produce tastes better anyways). It may not be possible to avoid Chinese made goods all together, but one could certainly greatly limit the number and types of products made in China that one buys.
It will take more than the Chinese government to enact product safety laws to address this problem. It will require the Chinese people themselves to come to the realization that product safety is extremely important to their own economic well being. If the demand for Chinese made goods starts to significantly decline, then the Chinese people and businesses in China will start to take product safety more seriously and start to hold themselves more accountable.
CPSC recalls for products containing lead or other chemical hazards between Jan 1, 2007 and Aug 15, 2007
The following is the list of 36 recalls we found on the CPSC's website. Keep in mind that individual recall notices can represent dozens of products. Unless otherwise noted, all recalls below were voluntary recalls by the manufacturer/retailer and the recalled products were manufactured in China.
- Mattel Recalls "Sarge" Die Cast Toy Cars Due To Violation of Lead Safety Standard
- Fisher-Price Recalls Licensed Character Toys Due To Lead Poisoning Hazard
- Children's Earrings Sold at Wal-Mart Stores in Florida Recalled by Uncas Manufacturing Co. Due to Lead Poisoning Hazard
- AAFES Expands Recall of "Soldier Bear" Toy Sets Due to Lead Poisoning Hazard (made in Hong Kong, which is part of China)
- Children's Metal Jewelry Recalled by Future Industries Due to Lead Poisoning Hazard
- Children's Necklaces Recalled by GeoCentral Due to Lead Poisoning Hazard
- RC2 Corp. Recalls Various Thomas & Friends™ Wooden Railway Toys Due to Lead Poisoning Hazard
- Silver Stud Earrings Sold Exclusively at Kmart Recalled by Crimzon Rose Accessories Due to Lead Poisoning Hazard
- Gemmy Industries Corp. Recalls Flashing Eyeball Toys Due to Chemical Hazard (the liquid the eye balls floated in was kerosene)
- Children's Metal Jewelry Sold at Limited Too and Justice Stores Recalled by Tween Brands Due to Lead Poisoning Hazard
- Toy Drums Recalled by The Boyds Collection Ltd. Due to Lead Poisoning Hazard
- AAFES Recalls "Soldier Bear" Toy Sets Due to Lead Poisoning Hazard (made in Hong Kong, which is part of China)
- Troy-Bilt Recalls Children's Gardening Gloves Due to Lead Poisoning Hazard
- Children's Rings Recalled By Cardinal Distributing Due to Lead Poisoning Hazard
- High Lead Levels Prompt Recall of Children's Metal Jewelry By Spandrel Sales and Marketing Due to Lead Poisoning Hazard
- CPSC Warns About Worn Vinyl Baby Bibs (country of manufacturer not listed, but news reports have stated China)
- Lead Poisoning Hazard Prompts Cardinal Distributing to Again Recall Children's Rings (Made in India)
- Target Recalls Anima Bamboo Collection Games Due to Lead Poisoning Hazard
- Oriental Trading Company Inc. Recalls Children's Necklaces Due to Lead Hazard
- 900,000 Children's Necklaces and Charm Bracelets Recalled by Cardinal Distributing Co. Due to Lead Poisoning Hazard (Made in India)
- Various Metal Key Chains Recalled by Dollar General for Lead Poisoning Hazard
- A&A Global Industries Recalls Children's Bracelets Due to Lead Poisoning Hazard
- Regent Products Corp. Recalls Stuffed Ball Toys Due to Lead Hazard
- Children's Mood Necklaces Recalled by Rhode Island Novelty Due to Lead Poisoning Hazard
- Children's Necklaces Sold Exclusively at Claire's Stores Recalled Due to Lead Poisoning Hazard
- Toys "R" Us Recalls "Elite Operations" Toy Sets Due to Lead and Laceration Hazards
- Children's Necklaces Sold Exclusively at Accessories Palace Recalled by United Imports Due to Lead Poisoning Hazard
- Discount School Supply Recalls Children's Two-Sided Easels Due to Lead Poisoning Hazard
- H & M Recalls Boy's Jackets Due to Choking, Poisoning Hazards
- Children's Rings Sold at Big Lots! Stores Recalled By Lari Jewelry Company Due to Lead Poisoning Hazard
- Children's Jewelry Sold Exclusively at Kmart Recalled by Crimzon Rose Accessories Due to Lead Poisoning Hazard
- Samara Brothers Recalls Boys' Jackets Due to Lead Poisoning Hazard
- Children's Bracelets Recalled by DM Merchandising Due to Lead Poisoning Hazard
- Children's Rings Recalled by Shalom International Due to Lead Poisoning Hazard
- U.S. Toy Co. Recalls More Children’s Butterfly Necklaces Due to Lead Poisoning
- Samara Brothers Recalls Children's Two-Piece Overall Sets, Snaps Contain Lead
US Food and Drug Administration actions and warnings
- U.S. Food and Drug Administration Import Refusal Reports for OASIS
- FDA issues warning about tooth paste imported from China containing poisonous chemical - In May of 2007 the FDA started issuing warnings about toothpaste from China, which contained the poisonous chemical diethylene glycol (DEG).
- FDA: Pet Food Recall (Melamine)/Tainted Animal Feed
- FDA Detains Imports of Farm-Raised Chinese Seafood
Selected news articles
Reading the following articles is highly recommended
- From China to Panama, a Trail of Poisoned Medicine (New York Times – subscription may be required)
- China food safety head executed (BBC News)
- Chinese product scares prompt US fears (BBC News)
- Where did that food come from? Your guess is as good as the label (Seattle Post-Intelligencer)
- Food Imports Often Escape Scrutiny (NY Times – subscription may be requires)
- U.S. food imports outrun FDA resources (USA Today)