As a consumer correspondent, I often bring you stories of dangerous products and hazardous situations. This summer alone I've covered recalled beef, tainted toothpaste, skateboard injuries, barbecue grill fires, bacteria in beach waters and trampoline dangers.
And this week I would have brought you stories about laser printers emitting tiny particles that can lodge in your lungs and the presence of toxic lead in beloved toys like certain Dora the Explorer, Elmo and SpongeBob figures. Those last two stories were only pushed out of the headlines because of a more sudden and dramatic threat: collapsing bridges.
With all this doom and gloom, I often worry our viewers and readers will go numb and tune out safety advice. After all, that's why parables like "The boy who cried wolf" and "Chicken Little" have enduring meaning. A constant clamor of alerts and warnings can have the effect of making no single message stand out. So I'm going to single one out for you: lead. More on that in a moment.
Lead's Devastating Effects
As you go about your life, many hazards are theoretical and others mostly affect certain subsets of people. For example, a person in robust health doesn't have to worry as much about contaminated beach water as somebody with a weakened immune system and open cuts or wounds. So if you're in that subset, stay out of the water, and if you're not, just heed beach closings and you should be fine. It's simple.
As for the new study out this week about laser printers, it showed that they do emit ultrafine particles that could lodge in your lungs. But the researchers didn't test what those particles are made of and whether they're truly harmful. They called for further research. In the meantime, there's no need to panic. Just place your printers in a well-ventilated area and go get a cup of coffee instead of standing over them if you're doing a big print job.
But when it comes to lead in children's toys, we know it is a devastating toxin that stunts intelligence, causes lifelong irritability and can kill in potent doses. The effect is not theoretical. And it doesn't impact certain children more than others. Lead is poisonous to children (and adults). Period.
So if you're a parent and you're going to respond to one of the many safety alerts you hear, this is it.
I have an 8-month-old baby myself, and I try to follow my own advice. It can be exhausting to stay on top of this stuff, but in this case it's worth it.
Steps to consider:
Go to www.cpsc.gov and view the Consumer Product Safety Commission's list of products recalled because of lead. If you own any of them, take no prisoners. Get them our of your child's hands — and mouth — immediately. Compensation is often available for recalled products.
When you purchase toys in the future, be mindful of the categories that consistently land in recall notices: cheap toys made in China, painted toys, vending machine trinkets, children's jewelry and some vinyl items.
If you live in an older home, have it tested for lead paint and dust. A self-test kit from the hardware store is a start, but it's more effective to send samples to a lab. You can get a list of certified labs from your state environmental office. Some states even subsidize this testing.
Consider getting your water tested for lead. Many older homes were built with lead pipes. Some cities still use lead service lines to deliver your water. And if you rely on a private well, that means no municipal water authority is monitoring the quality for you. It's easy and not that expensive to collect samples and send them to a lab. In the meantime, filter-style pitchers are effective at removing lead and other contaminants from water. FYI, boiling kills bacteria but does nothing to lead.
Finally, you may be able to short-circuit some of the steps above by having your child's blood lead level tested. When you get the results, keep in mind that the government says anything over 10 mg/dl (micrograms per deciliter) is unhealthy, but many private advocates believe that standard is not nearly strict enough.