Do Home Lead-Testing Kits Work?
ALISON STEWART, host:
There are 49 shopping days until Christmas, just in time to load up on lead toys. Let this YouTube video from "Dora the Explorer" explain.
(Soundbite of YouTube video)
Unidentified Woman: (As Dora) Ola, everybody. It's me, Dora - Dora the Explorer. And I've got some bad news. If you haven't heard yet, a lot of my Dora toys contain lead paint. Can you say lead paint? Say it.
STEWART: Okay, I'll say it, Dora. We're pretty sure that isn't the real Dora voice, but some well-meaning citizen pointing out the obvious. The Consumer Product Safety Commission has recalled more than three and a half million toys since June because of lead contamination.
So how about putting a home lead testing kit on your Christmas list instead? Not so fast. A recent study put out by the CPSC concludes that home lead tests - unreliable. Not so fast again. Consumer Reports magazine also tested some of the home testing kits and found that some of them could provide some help.
This month, the magazine publishes a special investigation into lead contamination. And Don Mays is the senior director for product safety planning with Consumers Union. That's a non-profit publisher of Consumer Reports magazine. Hi, Don.
Mr. DON MAYS (Senior Director of Product Safety Planning and Technical Administration, Consumers Union): Good morning.
STEWART: So you and the CPSC both tested the testing kits, and you came to different conclusions. Venture to guess why?
Mr. MAYS: Well, that's right. In fact, it seems like our test protocols, as well as our test results, were probably very much the same. But the difference is really in the interpretation of those results. The Consumer Product Safety Commission said that they didn't find home test kits useful for detecting lead because in their test, they found too many false negatives and a few false positive test results.
In our own tests at Consumer Reports, we found that the recommended kits showed no false positives and no false negatives. The difference comes in in regard to the interpretation of what is a false negative. A false negative is when lead is present and you use the test kit to detect it and wind up with a negative result, meaning that it - the test kit shows that no lead is present.
But the fact is that these test kits are really designed only to detect surface lead and not the lead that might be imbedded beneath the surface.
STEWART: Right, right. So, in terms of detecting the surface lead of the five home lead test kits that you put to the test, how exactly do they work? Is it kind of a swabbing?
Mr. MAYS: Well, yeah. The ones that we recommend, particularly the Homax Lead Check and the Lead Check Household Lead Test Kit, use a sort of a cigarette-sized swab. You break an internal vial and then rub the swab over the object for thirty seconds. And if the tip of the swab changes to a pink or red color, it indicates the presence of lead.
STEWART: But to get the most exact lead levels, you really have to have things tested professionally. Is that hard to do? Is it expensive?
Mr. MAYS: It can be expensive, you know, not prohibitively expensive, but it would probably cost you more to have a quality laboratory run a thorough lead test for you than it would for just the cost of the toy. So if you're concerned about lead on toys, we think you can use one of these do-it-yourself lead test kits. If it shows a positive, take that toy away from the child.
STEWART: I know there's one kit that you thought didn't work so well, right?
Mr. MAYS: Well, there are a couple: There was a First Alert Kit and a PRO-LAB Lead Surface Kit. And we either had problems because they were so hard to use or they sometimes gave incorrect results or unreliable results. So we sort of focused our recommendations on, you know, the Lead Check Test and something called the Lead Inspector, which had more ability for detecting lead in pink or red objects, which can sometimes fool your test results.
STEWART: Well, there's something I also thought was interesting in your investigation - this was a four-month investigation into lead - was the very strange places that you find it in the home. Obviously, we all see the painted toys and think, oh, okay. But things like keys, brass keys?
Mr. MAYS: That's right. People don't realize that lead is all over their homes in a wide variety of products, particularly in things like extension cords and wire and cable, your holiday string lights when you're stringing them up this year, you'll probably see a warning label that says that the product contains lead, known to be a toxic chemical in the state of California. We get a lot of questions about that. We have found lead in lunch boxes, on backpacks, on baby bibs, you know, (unintelligible)…
STEWART: Glue stick caps - those little orange glue stick caps?
Mr. MAYS: That's right. Elmer's Glue stick, the orange cap on the top, in our test, it tested positive for lead.
STEWART: All right. Now that we've sufficiently scared everybody, can you put these numbers into perspective for us in terms of how many toys have been recalled versus how many that are really out there?
Mr. MAYS: Well, worldwide, there have been about 20 million recalls of toys in the past year. That's a huge number, probably bigger than we've ever seen. And about eight million or so were due to high levels of lead, and that exceeds the government standard for lead paint on toys.
Clearly, there are more hazardous products out there than just lead paint on toys. But the indication that we have lead resurfacing in the marketplace tells us that there's this gaping hole in our country's safety net. We need our government agencies to be working the ports to make sure that products that violate the regulations don't come into our country.
STEWART: It's definitely worth a read, the latest issue of Consumer Reports Magazine.
Don Mays is the senior director for product safety planning with the Consumers Union. Hey, Don, thanks a lot.
We'll link through to allow the information on our Web site to your Web site.
Mr. MAYS: Thank you. It's my pleasure.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.