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Made in China with lead or other toxins

By Kenneth Barbalace
[Monday, August 20, 2007]

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.

  1. Mattel Recalls "Sarge" Die Cast Toy Cars Due To Violation of Lead Safety Standard
  2. Fisher-Price Recalls Licensed Character Toys Due To Lead Poisoning Hazard
  3. Children's Earrings Sold at Wal-Mart Stores in Florida Recalled by Uncas Manufacturing Co. Due to Lead Poisoning Hazard
  4. AAFES Expands Recall of "Soldier Bear" Toy Sets Due to Lead Poisoning Hazard (made in Hong Kong, which is part of China)
  5. Children's Metal Jewelry Recalled by Future Industries Due to Lead Poisoning Hazard
  6. Children's Necklaces Recalled by GeoCentral Due to Lead Poisoning Hazard
  7. RC2 Corp. Recalls Various Thomas & Friends™ Wooden Railway Toys Due to Lead Poisoning Hazard
  8. Silver Stud Earrings Sold Exclusively at Kmart Recalled by Crimzon Rose Accessories Due to Lead Poisoning Hazard
  9. Gemmy Industries Corp. Recalls Flashing Eyeball Toys Due to Chemical Hazard (the liquid the eye balls floated in was kerosene)
  10. Children's Metal Jewelry Sold at Limited Too and Justice Stores Recalled by Tween Brands Due to Lead Poisoning Hazard
  11. Toy Drums Recalled by The Boyds Collection Ltd. Due to Lead Poisoning Hazard
  12. AAFES Recalls "Soldier Bear" Toy Sets Due to Lead Poisoning Hazard (made in Hong Kong, which is part of China)
  13. Troy-Bilt Recalls Children's Gardening Gloves Due to Lead Poisoning Hazard
  14. Children's Rings Recalled By Cardinal Distributing Due to Lead Poisoning Hazard
  15. High Lead Levels Prompt Recall of Children's Metal Jewelry By Spandrel Sales and Marketing Due to Lead Poisoning Hazard
  16. CPSC Warns About Worn Vinyl Baby Bibs (country of manufacturer not listed, but news reports have stated China)
  17. Lead Poisoning Hazard Prompts Cardinal Distributing to Again Recall Children's Rings (Made in India)
  18. Target Recalls Anima Bamboo Collection Games Due to Lead Poisoning Hazard
  19. Oriental Trading Company Inc. Recalls Children's Necklaces Due to Lead Hazard
  20. 900,000 Children's Necklaces and Charm Bracelets Recalled by Cardinal Distributing Co. Due to Lead Poisoning Hazard (Made in India)
  21. Various Metal Key Chains Recalled by Dollar General for Lead Poisoning Hazard
  22. A&A Global Industries Recalls Children's Bracelets Due to Lead Poisoning Hazard
  23. Regent Products Corp. Recalls Stuffed Ball Toys Due to Lead Hazard
  24. Children's Mood Necklaces Recalled by Rhode Island Novelty Due to Lead Poisoning Hazard
  25. Children's Necklaces Sold Exclusively at Claire's Stores Recalled Due to Lead Poisoning Hazard
  26. Toys "R" Us Recalls "Elite Operations" Toy Sets Due to Lead and Laceration Hazards
  27. Children's Necklaces Sold Exclusively at Accessories Palace Recalled by United Imports Due to Lead Poisoning Hazard
  28. Discount School Supply Recalls Children's Two-Sided Easels Due to Lead Poisoning Hazard
  29. H & M Recalls Boy's Jackets Due to Choking, Poisoning Hazards
  30. Children's Rings Sold at Big Lots! Stores Recalled By Lari Jewelry Company Due to Lead Poisoning Hazard
  31. Children's Jewelry Sold Exclusively at Kmart Recalled by Crimzon Rose Accessories Due to Lead Poisoning Hazard
  32. Samara Brothers Recalls Boys' Jackets Due to Lead Poisoning Hazard
  33. Children's Bracelets Recalled by DM Merchandising Due to Lead Poisoning Hazard
  34. Children's Rings Recalled by Shalom International Due to Lead Poisoning Hazard
  35. U.S. Toy Co. Recalls More Children’s Butterfly Necklaces Due to Lead Poisoning
  36. Samara Brothers Recalls Children's Two-Piece Overall Sets, Snaps Contain Lead

US Food and Drug Administration actions and warnings

Selected news articles

Reading the following articles is highly recommended


NOTICE: Comments are user generated feedback and do not represent the views and/or opinions of EnvironmentalChemistry.com.

Anonymous said...

The FDA should more carefully check which are actually approved and which are just lieing so they can get their products into the USA.

Anonymous said...

So what are we going to do about all the pencils????

Rosie says it best, as always: http://community.whptv.com/forums/post/1898071.aspx

Ken (EnvironmentalChemistry.com) said...

"So what are we going to do about all the pencils????"

I assume this was a joke, but in case its not, lead pencils are not made out of lead. Their core is graphite (aka carbon). I've never understood why they are called "lead pencils" instead of "graphite pencils". All it does is confuse people.

Unknown said...

I think you mean it will require that China's business class come to this realization. Which they will in order to preserve their positions, causing them to take the absolute least possible corrective measures.

The Chinese people are well aware of the problems, since scores die every year domestically from tainted, fake, and outright deadly goods. They welcome U.S. pressure on these matters, because we are able to bring them. They don't want to eat poison and they don't want to make trash. What they hope is that China does not simply institute a two policy system, allowing toxic products in-country, with safe goods exported.

The people of China have no power to change anything, except by desperate rioting. Which causes the impotent central government to show up with new local Communist Party officials to replace the dead ones, and execute or arrest some factory bosses. The opacity of their system ensures corruption and precludes any true solution.

I'm afraid this is called getting what you paid for. Forgive me if I lack the normal sympathy I would have for my countrymen, but quite frankly, every single American should have known better (Caveat emptor, bitches). Many of us did. But for too many, conformity took precedence over decency. Greed took precedence over honor, and too many let it pass.

Buy your kids books on how to make things. Help them to do their math homework. Take them camping and tell them about the stars. And yes, even if you think you're bright, you may have to brush up on some things yourself. You'll be better for it and so will they.

Do not try to pass off our problems on those who have no power, for you betray your ignorance by doing so. Petty greed by our own imbeciles drove production there, under the false pretenses of globalization. Which are inherently flawed due to their erroneous and bizarre presumption that those elsewhere will forever work for less even once their standard of living is increased. Or is that not implied? Without that implication, it becomes an outright fraud.

We have enough crap in garages and storage. Our greatness fades by the day that we fail to correct these problems. You never needed those trinkets from Wal-Mart anyway.

Unknown said...

Re: Lead pencils

The Romans used lead in their styli. If more Americans understood basic facts about history, then we would be in a far less perilous predicament.

Anonymous said...

Has anyone tested dishes made in China for lead content?

Anonymous said...

I purchased pencils today at Kmart for my child to use at school. We tried to sharpen them with an electric sharpener but was unsucessful. The wood used is like iron, a child would never be able hand sharpen in school. What a waste of money. But it got me wondering what contaminates could be in the wood, paint, metal and eraser. Is the graphite really lead? I'm sending one to a lab to find out if we are in danger from all items made in China.

Ken (EnvironmentalChemistry.com) said...

Graphite is simply a form of pure carbon, which is harmless to us. See John's post above for the history of why we call graphite pencil lead.

Normally the metal holding the eraser in place is going to be a really low grade tin alloy. IF there were any lead on the pencil, I would expect it to be in the paint on the pencil. In the vast majority of recalls for lead, the lead was in the paint that was used.

Remember, that the danger is with ingesting or inhaling the lead. Based on everything I have read, there is no danger from skin contact (absorption) with lead. So you can handle pure lead blocks in your hands with no risk so long as you wash your hands before eating something and/or handling things that you would put in your mouth.

Anonymous said...

I have to wonder if we are taking a big risk with "hand-painted" glasses, painted dishes, children's character plates and bowls and coffee cups all from China.... Has anyone heard if these are safe for use?

Anonymous said...

Since all this news about lead in the paint that China uses, I'm afraid to use my Starbucks coffee mug. Or ANY cheap dishes made in China.

Anonymous said...

For Fathers Day my daughter bought a BBQ set made by Gourmet Traditions and when I washed them the water turned red. does any one know if these are safe to use as they are made in China, Thanks

Anonymous said...

I don't see any answers about the lead in dishes made in China. As for my self, I don't trust using them and I have boxes them up and they are headed for the landfill. If the government is not going to help us with this, I said do what you think is right for yourself. I have noticed that these dishes do not heat well in the microwave, the glaze changes colors and cracks. The dished get too hot to touch and the food on them does not heat well. Going out now to find MADE IN USA dishes. Hope that means that the makers are using only made in USA products in the MADE IN USA dishes and other goods.

Ken (EnvironmentalChemistry.com) said...

Typically you can buy lead test kits at your local kitchen and bath store. These are simple to use kits that can help you determine if your dishes contain lead.

DDS Gainesville said...

This only suggests that China should really have a strict guidelines in making their products and more strict when it comes to make food products. It is a big lesson they've learned, well we only hope that they really did.

Anonymous said...

My yellow lab has been diagosed with squamous cell carcinoma in his nasal plane...I am curious if anyone knows if dog food bowls from China have ever been linked to this type of disease??? Both his food and water bowl are ceramics made in China...can anyone help me with this:?

Anonymous said...

I came here looking for some answers. The other day I heated up a cup of coffee in the microwave for exactly one minute. When I reached in to grab the mug handle I severely burned my hand and it blistered all up. Throughout my day to day activities those blisters broke causing even more pain than I already had. I've used other mugs in the microwave with no problems. I looked on the bottom of the mug which you guessed it was made in China made of stonemite. For some reason the mug got superheated, but the coffee inside was only lukewarm at best. Maybe I ought to throw those dishes out that are made in China then I won't have to worry about it any more.

Anonymous said...

I am very worried about the dollar store dishes we use - I do put them in the dishwasher but have seen coments about not doing so. I try to tell everyone not to use them in the microwave ever and plan to purchase USA dishes for the microwave. I read that any container that gets hot from the microwave should not be used.

My intuition tells me not to use any products from china. I trusted Milo's Kitchen dog treats until the Recall because of added antibiotics. Now I only treat with fresh vegies and fruits they are allowed to eat and wash them well before use - they come from everywhere also. All the safety regulations in the USA push up prices. If we kept the jobs here we could afford to pay the price - were paying it anyway in healthcare insurance and services. So sad!

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