Spotlight Each day you make a decision about your child’s lunch: Will you let him eat the hot lunch at school, even though you doubt it’s healthy enough? Or will you pack her a healthy lunch in her favorite lunchbox, the soft-sided vinyl one with the Powerpuff Girls picture?
Turns out the lunch you pack may be healthy but the insulated lunchbox may not, because the vinyl may contain lead.
That charge comes from a California-based environmental group called the Center for Environmental Health. However, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, the federal agency charged with monitoring products, says preliminary tests show there is no cause for alarm. But officials have not elaborated on how much testing has been done.
That means no one knows yet whether these lunchboxes are dangerous, say local lead experts, who recommend using paper sacks or metal lunch boxes, at least for now.
Lead is a hazardous material proven to retard growth and cause behavioral, learning and hearing disabilities in kids. Lead poisoning is particularly harmful to kids under age 6, whose brains are still developing, but some studies have shown it also affects older kids and adults.
A testing question
Patty Davis, a spokesperson for the safety commission, says the test used by the environmental group simply measures the presence of lead. Those tests show that some of the vinyl lunchboxes have double the legal limit for lead in paint; the extreme was one lunchbox with 90 times the limit.
The safety commission, meanwhile, tests not only the presence of lead, but also the amount of typical exposure.
Lead poisoning occurs only when lead is digested. Therefore, the lead would have to break down into some other form, such as chips or dust, and kids would have to eat it before it could harm them.
Experts say any lead can hurt children, but only when blood lead levels reach a certain point—more than 10 micrograms per deciliter—is a child considered to have lead poisoning.
"A child would have to rub their lunchboxes with their hands and lick them 100 times a day for 15 to 30 days in order for these lunchboxes to present any danger," Davis says. "There is not any chance a child is going to do this."
But the federal agency has not reported how many lunchboxes have been tested to arrive at this conclusion.
And because the discovery of lead in the vinyl of these lunchboxes is recent, scientists have yet to figure out how or whether it breaks down over time into a form that children can swallow.
Other vinyl products produce significant dust and cause lead poisoning, so there’s reason to believe that these lunchboxes would do the same, says Dr. Helen J. Binns, a pediatrician at Children’s Memorial Hospital in Chicago who specializes in treating and preventing lead poisoning.
It is impossible to tell by looking which lunchboxes have lead in the lining. And it is impossible to track which lunchboxes were made in which factory—some factories use lead, some don’t. But companies do not use lot or batch numbers.
To be safe, Binns suggests parents use brown paper bags instead.
Hoping for a recall
The California environmental group and local experts agree that these lunchboxes alone probably won’t cause lead poisoning. Rather, it is the accumulation of exposure to lead in products children use every day—such as paint in furniture, on walls and in jewelry—that raises the risk of lead poisoning.
Binns and Anne Evens, head of the childhood lead prevention program for the Chicago Department of Public Health, both say there is no reason to expose children to lead needlessly.
Already more young children in Chicago than in anywhere else in the United States have elevated lead levels, most of it caused by eating paint dust or chips from buildings built before 1978—the year the government banned lead from paint.
Researchers at the Center for Environmental Health discovered the lead in the linings after they noticed the popularity of vinyl lunchboxes. Lara Cushing, research director at the center, says lead is intentionally added to vinyl because it acts as a pigment or heat stabilizer and it’s cheap.
When they tested the lunchboxes, Cushing says she was surprised at how high the levels were.
Armed with the results, Cushing’s group filed a lawsuit charging the companies violated a law unique to California requiring unsafe products be labeled. (While Illinois does not have such a law, the state’s Attorney General’s office is testing some lunchboxes to see whether the amount of lead violates Illinois’ lead prevention law, says spokesperson Melissa Merz.)
Cushing says she hopes the lawsuit will spur the companies to get the lead out of products or convince the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission to issue a recall.
Two manufacturers, Igloo and InGEAR, and several retailers, including Toys "R" Us, Walgreens and Big Lots, are named in the lawsuit.
Igloo could not be reached for comment and the retailers referred questions to the manufacturers.
Larry Gutkin, chief executive officer of Buffalo Grove-based InGEAR, says the company’s products meet federal standards and, therefore, are not harmful to anyone.
"Both my kids carry their lunch in my products and I even bring my lunch to work in my products," Gutkin says. "There is no way that I would let my children carry them if they were dangerous."
Sarah Karp is a writer who lives in Chicago’s Woodlawn neighborhood with her husband and three sons, DeVonte, 7, Josiah, 5, and Zion, 4 months.
We put a variety of vinyl lunchboxes to the test. The result: No lead. The significance? Not sure.
"Those tests are not reliable," says Anne Evens, head of the childhood lead prevention program for the Chicago Department of Public Health. "There are a lot of false positives." OK, we got negatives. But still.
The companies farm out the manufacturing to factories throughout the world with no batch or lot numbers, Evens says. Maybe none of the lunchboxes have lead, but maybe a handful made in a certain factory do.
The bottom line? We don’t know.
But until we do, why flirt with even a chance of lead exposure? Paper will do nicely.