February 18, 2007

Consumer Protection Agency Covered Up Risks from Lead in Children’s Lunchboxes

FOIA reveals CPSC testing showed lead lunchbox risk, yet the agency manipulated tests and misled parents on lunchbox safety

Press Release (below)

Consolidated Data

FOIA CPSC internal communication

FOIA CPSC testing data/protocol change

FOIA CPSC high lead result

FOIA CPSC internal communication

CEH Fact Sheet on Lead in Lunchboxes


To see the Associated Press story, click here
Oakland, CA- Government documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) by the Center for Environmental Health (CEH) were released today, revealing that the federal Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) withheld information about high levels of lead found in its testing of children’s vinyl lunchboxes, and falsely claimed that agency tests showed no need for concern.

In the summer of 2005, a CEH investigation made national news by exposing the widespread lead contamination found in children’s vinyl lunchboxes. Just weeks after the CEH test results were released, the federal Consumer Product Safety Commission announced that its testing showed no lead problems from lunchboxes. Now, CEH has received government documents showing that at the time CPSC made its announcement, its own laboratory testing showed that vinyl lunchboxes had levels of lead as much as 16 times higher than levels allowed for lead in paint. Even worse, the documents reveal that at the time the agency was about to announce that lead lunchboxes are safe, CPSC had just changed its testing procedure in an apparent effort to minimize findings of lead in lunchboxes.

“CPSC told parents that these lunchboxes were safe, but their own tests showed that lead in these lunchboxes could pose a threat to children,” said Michael Green, Executive Director of CEH. “It is shocking to see an agency entrusted with our safety playing Russian roulette with our children’s health.”

CEH announced its findings of lead in children’s lunchboxes on August 31, 2005. In its September 27, 2005 announcement of “Preliminary Lead Test Results for Vinyl Lunchboxes,” CPSC claimed that its “staff tested the inside and outside of each lunch box and the preliminary results were consistently below one microgram (μg).” The agency stated that this level posed no health threat to children.

But the documents CEH just received in response to a FOIA request from over a year ago show that at the time of the CPSC statement, the agency had tested fewer than ten vinyl lunchboxes, and already had some tests showing high lead levels. Three of these early CPSC tests showed lunchboxes with lead levels that were 2-16 times higher than the limit for lead in paint, and in at least three other tests, lunchboxes were found with levels higher than 1.0 μg of lead released from the surface of the lunchbox ( the maximum allowable level of lead ingestion under CA law is 0.5 μg from consumer products). The documents also show that the agency’s testing methods were haphazard, with some tests conducted on both interior and exterior surfaces and some only on the outside, and had inconsistent findings.

Even more troubling, the CPSC documents show a shift in the agency’s testing procedures for lunchboxes. After finding high levels of lead in some initial testing, an agency memo notes that they were changing the testing procedure, in an apparent attempt to rig the process so it would be less likely to find high lead levels. Agency staff also told their lab scientists to report on average lead levels in their tests, instead of cumulative lead levels, even though in the real world children are exposed to lead cumulatively.

In a memo an agency scientist explains the change in methodology stating that “This shows (or I guess HS will say that this shows) that the overall risk is lower than our original testing would have showed….”

“It’s especially disturbing that the testing procedures were both inconsistent and manipulated” added CEH researcher Alexa Engelman, “Using an average exposure for lead from lunchboxes is like telling a parent, ‘here’s a pile of paint chips, and some contain high levels of lead, but many contain very low levels, so it’s ok for your child to eat the whole pile, because on average the exposure is low.’ It’s complete nonsense.”

Since its initial investigation, CEH has tested hundreds of lunchboxes bought from store shelves and received from concerned parents, and has initiated legal action against the retailers and manufacturers of these dangerous products. Through this litigation, CEH has created industry-wide reformulation of vinyl lunchboxes to eliminate lead threats to children, in groundbreaking settlements with fifteen manufactures and retailers of vinyl lunchboxes. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration also last year issued a warning to manufacturers of vinyl lunchboxes, advising them to eliminate the use of vinyl in lunchbox interiors. Ironically, FDA based their recommendation in part on CPSC’s test results.

“It is the responsibility of our government to reduce all lead exposures to our most vulnerable population; our children,” said Michael Green. “In the face of inaction from the CPSC, our organization along with allied states and Attorney Generals will continue to work to eliminate lead from kid’s lunch menus.”


Consumer Product Safety Commission: Out to Lunch on Lead Risks to Kids

Below are details on testing data from documents obtained from the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC). The Commission tested vinyl lunchboxes in the fall of 2005, and announced that they found no lead risk to children. But their own test data suggests otherwise: in fact, even before their September 27, 2005 announcement stating that their testing found no lead risk, CPSC had tests showing high lead-containing lunchboxes. Further, CPSC’s early testing showed high lead levels in “swipe tests” (simulating lead coming off on a child’s hands and/or onto food in lunchboxes), but agency documents obtained by CEH reveal that CPSC then changed their test method, resulting in findings of less lead risk. The documents also suggest that, even though early tests found higher lead levels in some lunchbox interiors (where food is kept and could be contaminated with lead), CPSC did not consistently test lunchbox interiors in later rounds of testing.

Furthermore, even the high lead-levels in the “swipe tests” noted below are misleadingly low, as these numbers are average levels of lead found from lunchboxes over several wipes, while children would not be dosed by an average wipe but would receive a cumulative dose of lead every time they handle and eat from the lunchbox.

CPSC Sample # Lunchbox Description Date Tested Total lead (ppm)*^ Swipe Test Total Lead (μg)**^ Swipe Test Average Lead^
05-830-4008 (no lunchbox description given) 9/29/2005 4500, 3670 16.94 0.565
05-840-7230 (no lunchbox description given 9/20/2005 (10/11/2005) 1240 0.816 0.204
05-840-7336 Spiderman lunchbox 9/20/2005 (10/11/2005) 2500, 4870, 7120 1.945 0.486
05-840-7337 Spiderman lunchbox 9/20/2005, 9/27/2005 4390, 9600 1.645, 1.167 0.411, 0.292 (changed to 0.0270 with revised protocol)
06-420-7949 Strawberry Shortcake lunchbox 11/14/2005 700 0.237 0.0063
06-420-7954 Harley Davidson lunchbox 11/17/2005 760 0.843 0.0281
06-420-7952 blue, pink and black LB Style # 43390″ made in China 11/17/2005 2050 1.463 0.0488
06-810-3984 Orange lunchbox w/ built in freeze squares 11/15/2005 2110 1.31 0.0436
06-810-2555 NY Yankees Lunchbox 11/21/2005 7690 0.0439 0.0146

*in paint, lead levels over 600 ppm are illegal. All of these lunchboxes exceed that limit; CPSC documents refer to at least eight other lunchboxes they tested and found levels higher than 600 ppm, however test results for these other eight lunchboxes were missing from the FOIA response.

^multiple numbers refer to tests on different parts of a lunchbox (interior, exterior, &/or other parts) **Under California law, products exposing children to over 0.5 ug/day of lead are illegal. The first three lunchboxes exceed that limit; documents show that soon after these early tests, CPSC changed their test method, resulting in the lower levels in later tests.

This document reveals that sometime between September 18 (the date of their first reported test result) and September 26, 2005 (the day before they released their statement claiming that vinyl lunchboxes posed no health hazard), CPSC changed their testing protocol. The agency’s initial “wipe testing” (simulating food or a child’s hands being exposed to lead) found high lead levels on at least 4 of the fewer than 10 lunchboxes in the agency’s early tests, suggesting that children would cumulatively receive a very high dose of lead. But the new test method used average lead exposures per wipe over 30 wipes, and as this internal communication shows, the change in the testing method resulted in a lower lead result.


These two documents show the result of CPSC’s changing their test method. The first document shows that a “Spiderman Lunchbox” was tested on September 19 using the agency’s original method, and was found with high lead levels: the lunchbox had a total lead content of .960% lead by weight, or 9600 ppm, which is 16 times over the legal limit for lead in paint; and, in wipe tests, three surfaces on the lunchbox (two exterior and one interior) all tested cumulatively above 1 microgram of lead (all were over the California safety standard). In the second document, using the revised testing method which increased the number of wipes (from four to 30) and averaged the results, on the same lunchbox CPSC found artificially low levels of lead (.0191, .0270, and .0036, which represent average exposures over 30 wipes).


The document below reveals that in a test of a section of a lunchbox, the testing showed 16.960 μg of lead from 30 wipes. With these 30 wipes, a child would be exposed to a total amount of lead approximately 34 times the maximum allowable level under California law.


The document below, sent from CPSC to FDA after the latter agency requested CPSC’s test results, reveals that 20% of the 58 lunchboxes sampled by the CPSC were found to contain lead over 600 parts per million, the limit for lead in paint. In CEH testing of hundreds of vinyl lunchboxes, a similar percentage was found with similarly high lead levels. Despite this 1-in-5 testing rate for elevated lead levels, the CPSC still refused to acknowledge any lead hazard to children, but after receiving the CPSC data, the FDA warned manufacturers of vinyl lunchboxes to stop using vinyl in lunchbox interiors, since even trace levels of lead in vinyl lunchboxes would be considered an illegal food additive (seen here: