What Can Parents Do to Avoid Dangerous Toys?

Dr. Jerome Paulson, a pediatrician with the National Children's Medical Center in Washington, D.C., talks with Michele Norris.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

For more now on what people can do to avoid the potential dangers on all those recalled toys, we're joined by Dr. Jerome Paulson. He's a pediatrician with the National Children's Medical Center in Washington, D.C. Dr. Paulson, thanks for being with us.

Dr. JEROME PAULSON (Pediatrician, National Children's Medical Center): My pleasure.

NORRIS: Now, this latest recall involved toys that have these small and very powerful magnets. And the danger, as I understand, is that children could swallow them, especially if they swallow more than one of those magnets. Is that correct?

Dr. PAULSON: Yes. That is correct. If they swallow one magnet now and that starts to move down the intestinal tract and then a few minutes later or an hour later or whatever, swallow another one from the different places that those magnets are, they can attract one another through the walls of the intestinal tract. But when they link up, they put enough pressure on those walls that it actually causes death of those walls and a hole in the intestinal tract.

NORRIS: And how would a parent know if this had happened?

Dr. PAULSON: A parent might actually not know because these are small so they just go right down the esophagus and into the stomach and the child's not likely to cough or gag, so there may be no symptoms whatsoever from the initial swallowing of the magnet.

NORRIS: Symptoms they might notice later on.

Dr. PAULSON: The symptoms would come later on if the two or more magnets sort of linked up, if you will, inside the intestinal tract. The child would have some stomachache, might or might not have some vomiting, with less likely have some diarrhea, but I guess that's a possibility, too.

NORRIS: And you'd have to go in and remove the magnet surgically, the child wouldn't pass the magnets through.

Dr. PAULSON: Once the two have attached to one another, they won't move. They're stuck to each other. And so the only way to get them out is through surgical procedure, yes.

NORRIS: Now, I'd like to turn to the other potential danger in this latest recall and also other recalls earlier this summer - lead exposure. Is the primary concern here that the child might ingest the paint from his toy or is there a danger, potential danger from other kinds of exposure, the paint breaking down or chipping in some way?

Dr. PAULSON: Well, the risk is from ingestion whether the toy is put in the child's mouth and the child chews on it, or over time, the paint might get on the child's hands and then into the mouth. The paint touching the hands, or any other part of the skin for that matter, is not dangerous.

NORRIS: What are the long-term dangers to lead exposure?

Dr. PAULSON: The long-term dangers from lead exposure relate to loss of IQ, problems with short attention span, problems with behavior. The risk for any one child from any one toy is pretty low. But from a public health standpoint, tens of thousands of kids each individually exposed means that for the society as a whole, there'd been a lot of kids who may sustain a little bit of damage.

NORRIS: How often do you see children there at the medical center because they've either ingested lead that comes from a toy or had some other problem based on something they were playing with, something that would have been bought in a store?

Dr. PAULSON: It's not very common to see acute toxicity and emergency setting from lead in this day and age. But in terms of kids swallowing things that are part of toys, that's certainly a weekly or a monthly occurrence in a busy emergency setting.

NORRIS: Well Dr. Paulson, thank you very much for speaking with us.

Dr. PAULSON: My pleasure.

NORRIS: That was Dr. Jerome Paulson. He's a pediatrician with the National Children's Medical Center in Washington, D.C.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

You can learn more about the risks of lead poisoning and how to avoid it at npr.org.

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The Dangers of Lead

Lead is highly toxic, and can cause a variety of health problems if inhaled or swallowed in high enough doses. Since the 1980s, federal regulations in the United States have greatly reduced lead exposure by phasing out leaded gasoline, reducing the use of lead pipes in household and commercial plumbing, and banning or limiting the use of lead in many consumer products, such as household paint.

Still, there's some residual lead in the environment. The Environmental Protection Agency offers these tips on where lead is found and how to avoid it.

Where Lead Is Found

Paint: Before 1978, lead-based paint was used in many homes – both inside and outside. If lead-based paint is in good condition, it is usually not a hazard, but peeling or chipping paint could be dangerous. Dust created during the renovation of an old house often contains high levels of lead.

Soil: Lead from exterior paint or other sources, such as leaded gasoline that was used in cars, can accumulate in the soil.

Drinking water: If lead pipes were used for plumbing, drinking water might have unhealthy levels of lead.

Containers: Lead crystal or pottery with a lead-based glaze could leave lead in food or liquids. Experts recommend that wine and other beverages not be stored in lead crystal decanters.

Children and Lead Poisoning

Children are more sensitive to lead poisoning than adults because they are still growing, so their bodies absorb more lead. Those who are 6 years old or younger are most at risk. Young children often put things in their mouths, and some of these objects – such as toys, furniture, or railings — can be covered in lead dust from contaminated dirt or chipped paint.

Lead poisoning in children that goes undetected can lead to slowed growth, hearing problems, behavioral and learning problems. If you think your child might have been exposed to high levels of lead, consult a doctor about getting a simple blood test.

Adults and Lead Poisoning

Adults with high levels of lead in their bodies can suffer from a variety of health problems, including nerve disorders, memory and concentration problems, muscle and joint pain, and digestive difficulties. High levels of lead can also cause difficulties during pregnancy, including harm to the fetus, as well as other reproductive problems for both men and women.

How to Protect Your Family

If you think your home has high levels of lead, get it tested to find out.

Wash children's hands frequently, and keep play areas clean. Keep young children from chewing on painted surfaces, such as windowsills.

Make sure to clean up paint chips, and keep floors, windowsills and other surfaces free of dust that might contain lead. Use a damp sponge or cloth to clean, and rinse it thoroughly when you're done.

Try to keep contaminated soil out of the house by cleaning or removing shoes.

Source: Environmental Protection Agency

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