Health Risks From Toxic Toys Likely Slight

As further details emerge over Mattel Inc.'s recall of more than 250,000 toys due to concerns about their lead content, pediatric toxicologists say that children who handled the toys are not likely at increased risk of experiencing lead-related health effects.

Mattel announced Tuesday morning its second recall of Chinese-made toys in as many weeks. Once again, the concern was over detectable levels of lead in the paint used in the toys.

"Lead is a confirmed neurotoxin that can affect children's learning abilities and increase their risk for behavioral problems," said Dr. Adam Spanier, associate director of the Lead Clinic at Cincinnati Children's Hospital.

"The general rule of thumb is that there is no 'safe' level of lead when it comes to children," said Bryan L. Williams, associate professor of pediatrics at Le Bonheur Children's Medical Center in Memphis, Tenn. "Trace amounts of lead can be harmful to a child over time."

But many pediatric toxicology specialists noted that the recall should not cause undue panic among parents.

"Say the child has one of these toys and has played with it for four to five months," said LuAnn White, director of the Center for Applied Environmental Public Health at Tulane University in New Orleans.

"The actual dose of lead they receive is probably very low. They may have gotten a little lead from it, but if you look at lead poisoning, it's more of a chronic thing — a low level of exposure over a long period of time," she said. "If the parents did buy this toy and their children were playing with it, they would probably want to take it away, but they don't need to be unduly concerned that the child's lead levels pose a significant threat."

"Usually, at the levels lead is found in toys, a single bite or fleck of paint would not cause any problems," said Dr. John G. Benitez, associate professor of environmental medicine and pediatrics at the University of Rochester Medical Center in New York.

"Just like old lead paint chips from older homes, a single chip or a few chips would not hurt a child. It is the continual exposure over time that would cause elevated blood lead levels and their consequent health effects on the child," said Benitez.

What's the Risk for Kids?

Despite the fact that short-term exposure to the toys likely posed little health risk to children, the notion that any lead was present in the products at all is an issue of concern for doctors and parents alike.

This is partly due to the fact that consistent exposure, even to very small amounts of lead, can have major health impacts — among them, a lowered IQ — for children in the long run.

But researchers are still split over exactly how much lead must be present in the body for these health effects to be seen.

Though it is generally agreed that the clinical threshold for blood lead levels in children is 10 micrograms per deciliter, establishing a "danger level" for lead in a child's body is a daunting task, since body weight, metabolism, and overall development can vary dramatically from one kid to the next.

But, if one thing is clear, it is that lead exposure seems to have a much graver effect on younger children.

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