A consumer watchdog group has found lead, arsenic and other potentially harmful chemicals in an array of everyday products, from handbags to pet supplies to car seats and backpacks.
The Michigan-based Ecology Center tested more than 5,000 products for its new database, healthystuff.org, launched Wednesday. The environmental advocacy organization also produces healthytoys.org and healthycar.org.
The group found lead in 75% of the 100 women's handbags tested. Two-thirds of all handbags tested had lead levels above 300 parts per million, the new safety standard for children's products, says Jeff Gearhart, research director at the Ecology Center.
That safety standard doesn't apply to adult products. But Gearhart notes that teething babies sometimes chew on soft purses and wallets, and that toddlers often play with their mother's bags. Children also can consume lead — which is toxic at any level — from household dust, he says.
One purse, an orange handbag from Nine West, had a lead level of 5,718 parts per million, Gearhart says. The same purse also had 450 parts per million of arsenic."It's a widespread problem, and we really need broader regulatory reform," to make products safer, Gearhart says.
In a company statement, the Jones Apparel Group, which includes Nine West, says its products meet all federal standards: "Nine West's business is premised upon providing customers with quality products that are both safe and fashionable.. .. We have never known our products to be harmful to consumers' health."
Children's advocates say that parents should be aware of these results, but not overly concerned.
"I'm less concerned about handbags than I am about things that are meant to be mouthed, like teethers," says Alan Greene, a pediatrician at Stanford's Lucile Packard Children's Hospital and author of Raising Baby Green. "But parents should at least know about the handbags, so they don't let it become a toy."
When considering chemical risks to children, Greene says parents should place a priority on products that go in a child's mouth, such as pacifiers; foods or food containers, such as sippy cups; and products that go on their skin, such as lotion.
He notes that children's blood lead levels are a fraction of what they were in the 1970s, when the country began phasing out lead in gasoline and paint. The major source of lead exposure to children today is in lead paint on windows, which children can ingest in the form of dust, Greene says.
Toys and other children's goods are far more strictly regulated today than a year ago, when Congress passed new limits on lead and chemicals called phthalates, which interfere with the hormone system. The law, which took effect in February, banned six types of phthalates. Consumers are also more conscious of the safety of pet products today because of melamine contamination in pet food in 2007, which caused many dogs and cats to develop kidney failure.
One-quarter of all pet products — and nearly half of all pet collars and tennis balls designed for dogs — had detectable levels of lead. Sports tennis balls intended for humans were lead-free, Gearhart says.
Yet Gearhart notes that these chemicals aren't required to make good products. His site also highlights products made without controversial chemicals, such as the Baby Trend Flex-Loc car seat and AirKong "squeaker" tennis balls for dogs.
A spokeswoman for the Juvenile Products Manufacturers Association, Amy Chezem, says chemical levels in products such as car seats are "very, very low" and "do not pose a risk to children."
"Consumers are taking a greater interest in environmentally sound products, as well as in protecting the environment, and manufacturers in all industries, including juvenile products, are responding," Chezem says.
Websites such as healthystuff.org can help consumers when shopping, as well as pressure manufacturers and retailers to remove controversial chemicals, Greene says. He notes that many consumer concern has led many stores and manufacturers to stop selling baby bottles made with the estrogen-like chemical BPA, or bisphenol A.
"Just having the information out there is going to lead to change," says Greene, who wasn't involved in the study. "Transparency is very powerful."
Another advocacy group, the Center for Health, Environment and Justice, last month published a list of school supplies made without PVC, or polyvinyl chloride, which often contains phthalates, at chej.org. The site highlights PVC-free products that include all Jansport backpacks, Nike shoes, Apple cellphones and Crocodile Creek lunch boxes.
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