The Checkout

FDA Demands Lead-Free Lunchboxes

The Food and Drug Administration is urging makers of soft vinyl (PVC) lunchboxes to stop marketing any products that contain lead. The move is an abruptly different course than the one taken by the Consumer Product Safety Commission, which has said that vinyl lunchboxes don't pose a health risk.

Last week, the FDA sent a letter to manufacturers and suppliers, saying it was concerned that the lead in these lunchboxes could leach into foods. "Because neither lead nor lead compounds are authorized for use in the manufacture of PVC food-contact articles such as lunchboxes and some migration of lead to food as a result of such use may reasonably be expected, we urge companies to refrain from marketing such lead-containing lunchboxes," wrote Laura M. Tarantino, director of the agency's office of food additive safety.

Ironically, the FDA cited the CPSC's own findings to make its case: "According to the CPSC data, a small amount of the lead present in the interior linings of the lunchboxes is transferable by a swipe test. This implies that a small amount of lead may reasonably be expected to transfer to food that contacts the interior lining and could be deemed to be an unsafe food additive. ... Therefore the lunchboxes containing the lead compounds may be subject to enforcement action."

Here's what the CPSC said about the same tests: "Based on the extremely low levels of lead found in our tests, in most cases, children would have to rub their lunchbox and then lick their hands more than 600 times every day, for about 15-30 days, in order for the lunchbox to present a health hazard."

The FDA letter is one more victory for the Center for Environmental Health, a California public-interest group that has been aggressively seeking the removal of lead in lunchboxes and kid's jewelry. It has won agreement from some manufacturers and retailers to limit the sales of such lunchboxes.

While applauding the FDA action, the group also warned parents to be wary of lunchboxes with labels saying they are "lead safe" or "lead free." CEH said it is unclear what tests the companies are using to make such claims and if, as one manufacturer said, they were relying on the CPSC's findings, then "Parents should take notice that a 'lead safe' label on a lunchbox may not provide adequate assurance."

By  |  July 24, 2006; 9:00 AM ET Consumer News
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If I were buying lunchboxes, I sure would like to know which ones to avoid to avoid lead exposure. The effect of consuming lead is cumulative, so lunchbox lead just adds on to paint lead and water lead and all the other kinds of lead one might unintentionally consume. And "safe"?? This month's Washingtonian has an interesting, lengthy article on lead poisoning. According to the article, lead exposure, even at levels "safe" according to the legal limit, can have horrible and incurable health effects.

Posted by: Wynne | July 24, 2006 10:19 AM

If we can't assume that a lunch box that claims it is lead-free is really lead free, then are we to assume that all lunch boxes containing soft vinyl most likely contain lead? And, how many parents have purchased inexpensive vinyl lunch boxes from mass retail discounters? My kid's lunch box is from Target, cost less than $10, and didn't have any claim to be lead-free.

Posted by: Michelle | July 24, 2006 10:50 AM

Seems like a solution would be to stop importing these lunchboxes.

Any lunchbox manufactured in the USA would be required to follow all rules and regulations required in this country for the safe manufacture of goods.

Since this won't happen. Just cut the vinyl liner out or buy a different type of lunch box. Pay attention to what you purchase...

Posted by: Cliff | July 24, 2006 12:15 PM

" ... rub their lunchbox and then lick their hands more than 600 times every day, for about 15-30 days ..."

One rub equals what, one second of contact? This is utter misdirection, they're trying to whitewash the problem.

Kids often have food -- apple? cookie? sandwich? -- anything not carefully wrapped up --- in contact with the plastic for four or five hours each day, leaching lead the whole time, eh?

Spill some jelly or melt some chocolate onto the nice, clean, white vinyl inside? Mom keeps it washed, no problem, just wipe that blob off with a finger and eat it.

Bet that wouldn't take three weeks of exposure before there's a dangerous amount of lead absorbed.

Posted by: rank hobbits | July 24, 2006 4:15 PM

rank hobbits is quite right. Many many foods are acidic. All citrus, salad dressing, bunches of stuff. Acids dissolve metal. The microenvironment inside the lunchbox would accelerate the leeching of metals from the lunchbox to the food.

Posted by: otter357 | July 26, 2006 11:06 AM

" ... rub their lunchbox and then lick their hands more than 600 times every day, for about 15-30 days ..."

or just do it 5-10 times a day during the course of 5 years--quite possible. Lead accumulates in human body and that's what's so dangerous.

Posted by: Elle | July 27, 2006 4:28 PM

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