Environmental Group Reveals Toxic Chemicals in a Range of Consumer Items

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The New York Times

Environmental Group Reveals Toxic Chemicals in a Range of Consumer Items

by
Leslie Kaufman and Gardiner Harris

Healthystuff.org

Some tennis balls for dogs, chew toys for cats and women’s plastic handbags were among the common household items found to contain lead and other toxic chemicals in recent tests, a nonprofit environmental group reported on Wednesday.

The Ecology Center, a group based in Michigan, announced that it had expanded its online database, healthystuff.org, to reflect 15,000 test results on more than 5,000 common items.

But independent toxicity experts expressed uncertainty that the mere presence of a toxic chemical in some objects would pose a clear health danger to people or animals.

The products were rated by level of concern from low to high, depending on how much lead, mercury, arsenic or other chemicals known to be hazardous to human and pet health were detected.

Jeff Gearhart, the research director for the center, which is known for its investigations on chemicals in children’s toys and cars, said it had decided to expand the database because of intense public demand for information on all types of products.

Mr. Gearhart said the center’s announcement was timed to give a lift to current efforts in Congress to introduce legislation to more closely regulate toxic chemicals that end up in so many household products.

“Current laws that regulate individual products are stopgap measures,” he said, “Ultimately we need to move to a system that doesn’t regulate the end product but regulates the chemicals themselves.”

Still, many experts on public health and toxicology cast doubt on the significance of finding lead in a woman’s handbag, for example, where it had little chance of ending up in a growing child’s digestive system.

Dr. Andrew D. Racine, director of the division of general pediatrics at the Children’s Hospital at Montefiore in the Bronx, said that any item that contained significant quantities of lead should not be given to children. But in most cases, knowing that a product may contain measurable quantities of a potentially toxic chemical is not helpful, he said.

“What does this mean?” he asked. “What’s the impact on our health? Without knowing that, all this does is frighten people.”

Some manufacturers echoed his observation that the report did not take into account actual exposure to the chemical.

For example, Jerry Sciarini, quality manager for OurPet’s, the manufacturers of the Play-N-Squeak Shake y’r Tail Feather mouse, objected to its being rated with a “high level” of concern. He said the lead was sewn into the toy and further sealed into a layer of plastic to protect the animal.

“There are no standards for pets, but retailers see pets as members of the family and ask us to treat them like they are, so we do,” Mr. Sciarini said.

Yet Charlotte Brody, the national field director for Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families, a Washington group that lobbies for more regulation of toxic chemical manufacturers, said it was useful for the public to have the information.

“The honest answer to this report is we do not know how big a deal it is,” she said. “Every year we learn that what we had learned was a safe level of a chemical turns out not to be that safe.

“If people are telling you lead is safe, even in small amounts, it isn’t science. It is hubris.”

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