Concerns about toxins in pet toys -- the focus of a ConsumerAffairs.com investigation in September -- continue to be raised nationwide.
The latest concerns surfaced in a recent investigation by WFLD-TV in Chicago, which had a private laboratory test 15 Chinese-made pet products for lead.
Tests conducted by Trace Laboratories, Inc. of Palatine, Illinois, revealed the ink logo on a Paws 'N Claws tennis ball for dogs contained 27,200 parts per million of lead. That's 45 times higher than the national level allowed for lead paint in children's toys. Federal law sets that limit at 600 parts per million.
There are, however, no national standards for lead and other toxins in pet toys.
Trace Laboratories also analyzed a ceramic pet bowl and discovered the paint on the bottom of that product contained 2,890 parts per million of lead nearly five times the 600 parts per million benchmark.
"I was surprised (by these results) because of all the exposure right now regarding lead in toys," Mitchell Sas, general manager of Trace Laboratories, told us. "You'd think suppliers would be more cautious and get an independent lab (to test the products)."
WFLD purchased the pet products from a Dollar General store and said it could not reach the manufacturers.
The station's tests come on the heels of a recent ConsumerAffairs.com investigation that brought the issue of toxins in pet toys to light.
Our investigation also triggered calls for national "acceptable standards and levels" for lead and other toxins in pet toys from the American Pet Products Manufacturers Association, veterinarians, and dog and cat owners across the country.
Earlier this month, the director of the Animal Poison Control Center (APCC) for the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals also urged pet toy makers to test their products and publicly disclose their findings.
As we reported, we hired a private laboratory in Texas to analyze four Chinese-made pet toys -- two for dogs and two for cats -- for lead and four other heavy metals.
ExperTox Inc. Analytical Laboratory discovered one of the dog toys -- a latex one that looks like a green monster -- contained what the lab's forensic toxicologist called high levels of lead and the cancer producing agent chromium.
A cloth catnip toy also tested positive for "a tremendous amount" of the toxic metal cadmium. Two veterinarians, however, told us the levels of toxic metals in the toys did not pose a health risk to dogs or cats.
ExperTox also analyzed two other Chinese-made pet toys a cloth hedgehog for dogs and a plastic dumbbell toy for cats. The lab detected cadmium in those toys, but said the levels were "about the amount you'd find in one cigarette" and not considered significant.
We purchased the toys from a Wal-Mart in Kansas City, Missouri. All the toys had a tag attached that read "Marketed by Wal-Mart stores and Made in China."
The levels of lead and other toxins in the dog and cat toys we tested were significantly lower than those found in the pet products Trace Laboratories analyzed. Nonetheless, ExperTox's forensic toxicologist called his lab's findings concerning and even suggested that Wal-Mart pull the products off the market.
"Or put a warning label on them that says if you put this (toy) in your mouth you will get poisoned," Dr. Ernest Lykissa, a forensic toxicologist and director of ExperTox, told us. "There is nothing good about the agents (in these toys) that I'm reporting to you."
The green monster toy, Dr. Lykissa said, contained 907.4 micrograms per kilogram of lead.
"That's almost one part per million," he said. "With that kind of concentration, if a dog is chewing on it or licking it, he's getting a good source of lead."
The green monster toy also contained what Dr. Lykissa considered high levels of chromium -- 334.9 micrograms per kilogram.
"With that kind of chromium in there you have what can be an extremely toxic toy if they (animals) put it in their mouths. And dogs put things in their mouths. If a dog puts this in his mouth, he runs a big chance of getting some type of metal toxicity that may shorten his life."
ExperTox also detected other toxic metals in the green monster toy.
"There's cadmium, arsenic, and mercury in there," Dr. Lykissa said. "This is not a clean toy. This is toxic. Bank on it."
ExperTox's tests on the catnip toy detected "concerning" levels of cadmium 236 micrograms per kilogram. "That one is worrisome to me," Dr. Lykissa said. "That's a big number. It's a good dose of cadmium."
Toxins come right off
There's another reason Dr. Lykissa expressed concerns about the heavy metals in these chew toys.
"These (toxic) materials came off the toys freely, like with the lick of the tongue from a dog or cat," he said. "They were readily liberated from these toys. We didn't take a sledge hammer and pound on them. I just did what a dog or cat would do by licking it. That's why this is so serious."
Dr. Lykissa said toxicologists cut off a small piece from each of the toys, weighed the samples, and put them in acidic water.
"We left the samples for a while and then heated them up to body temperature," he said. "Then we put them in a machine (called an ICP-MS- or Inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometry), and that machine told us this is lead and this is chromium . . .
"We didn't dissolve the toys," he added. "These materials were leeching off the toys. Whatever leeched off the toys is what I'm reporting to you. The material came right off. Somebody's saliva or the sweat in their hands would freely pick up these materials. And that's absorbing it. If you ate the materials, like a dog might, it would be worse."
A physicist who reviewed ExperTox's findings echoed Dr. Lykissa's concerns.
"The fact that these (toxins) were leeching off the toys makes this much worse," said Jim Norling, an Ohio physicist. "He (Dr. Lykissa) was testing how much lead leeched out of the toys. That sounds like water soluble lead, which is more toxic than solid lead that is encapsulated. Water soluble lead is easily absorbed by the body, so this ups the ante on being toxic."
He added: "There's a big difference between lead that is contained and lead that is leeching in water."
Trace Laboratories used a different procedure to test the pet products it analyzed for WFLD-TV. That lab used what's called an X-ray fluorescence analyzer.
"It basically shoots a beam (at the area tested) and reads back the material content in the product," said the lab's General Manager, Mitchell Sas. "In this case, we only screened for lead."
Meanwhile, ExperTox's findings struck a personal chord with Norling and his wife, Karen.
Their two Miniature Schnauzers -- Angus and Taylor -- have repeatedly played with Wal-Mart's green monster toys. The dogs, they said, chewed on the toys for days and eventually tore the squeakers out of them.
Karen is worried about lead building up her dogs' bodies and the long-term affects that could have on their health.
"I wish to God he (Dr. Lykissa) was wrong about all this because if he's not my dogs will inevitably suffer, which will cause me to suffer deeply in the long run."
Her husband shares those concerns for their dogs and himself and his wife.
"Our dogs love that (toy)," Norling said. "We throw it to them and our hands get wet. Now I wonder how much lead we were exposed to. I work with my hands and if I had a cut, that lead would go directly into my blood and that's very bad."
Wal-Mart, however, defended the pet toys we tested and said they were safe. The company also criticized Dr. Lykissa, saying he "severely misinterpreted" the results.
"After reviewing these test results provided to usthe results of these tests actually prove the products are VERY safe," said Wal-Mart's hired spokeswoman, Melissa O'Brien. She works for a private public relations firm called Edelman. "If these measurements are in fact the results, as you have reported, they have been severely misinterpreted by the director of ExperTox's lab, if he is reporting these levels to be 'high' or dangerous.
"The conclusions drawn in this article appear to have been based on incorrect interpretations of the data, and based on the opinions of a person (who is) not an expert in consumer product testing," O'Brien said.
O'Brien did not cite any scientific credentials and did not refer us to any scientific employees or consultants to back up her statements.
ExperTox said Dr. Lykissa is an expert at testing consumer products. The lab also called its findings "rock solid."
A veterinary toxicologist who reviewed ExperTox's results said the levels of toxic metals in the toys did not pose a health risk to dogs or cats.
"I don't see any of those numbers being a toxicity concern for dogs or cats," said Dr. Mike Murphy of the University of Minnesota's College of Veterinary Medicine. "Latex paint can contain one-half to one percent of lead, which is 10,000 parts per million.
"I disagree with the interpretation that's being made (by Lykissa)," added Dr. Murphy, who holds a Ph.D. in toxicology. "I consider these to be extremely low numbers and they are not a toxicological concern for pet owners."
After learning about Trace's findings, however, Dr. Murphy told the American Veterinary Medical Association that pet owners should be careful about lead exposure in their dogs and cats.
"If your pet is chewing and swallowing a toy then maybe that's not something you should allow the animal to play with," Dr. Murphy said, adding there are other -- more toxic -- sources of lead in many households, including old lead paint, fishing weights, curtain weights, and some older molded-metal toys.
More testing needed
Dr. Steven Hansen, director of the Animal Poison Control Center (APCC) for the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animal, said his lab fielded more than 200,000 hotline calls in the past two years. And none of those calls came from pet owners worried about a toy causing lead poisoning in their pets.
Dr. Hansen, however, urged pet toy makers to test their products for lead and other toxins.
"To reassure pet owners, we encourage manufacturers to test pet products for lead and other contaminants and post findings on their corporate Web sites," he said.
An Illinois pet owner, who in August paid to have 24 of her dogs' Chinese-made toys tested for lead, agrees.
Nancy R. of Orland Park, Illinois, hired a laboratory at the Illinois Department of Agriculture to run the tests.
"The only reason I tested these dog toys is because I have lost three Shelties in the last four years and I can only figure out why one of them died," said Nancy, who is also a nurse.
The Illinois Department of Agriculture's lab found the highest levels of lead in a PetSmart tennis ball -- 335.7 parts per million. It detected the lowest levels of lead in a Hartz Rubber Percival Platypus 0.02 parts per million.
"These are all within the acceptable limits for lead content in children's toys in Illinois," the lab's director, Dr. Gene Niles, told us. The veterinarian is a Diplomate of the American Board of Veterinary Toxicology (DABVT). "There are no levels for lead content in pet toys. Are these numbers high or low? All I can tell you is that in Illinois, the state allows up to 600 parts per million for lead in kid's toys and these are all within that guideline."
Nancy, however, says new guidelines are needed specifically for pet toys. And these latest findings by Trace Laboratories illustrate her concerns.
"I want standards for safe levels of lead and other toxins for pet toys," she said. "And I want to know what they (those in the pet industry or with legislative authority) are going to do about getting these standards.
"Originally, my lab convinced me all my toys were safe. But now, I don't knowI don't know if I feel safe with the toys out there. I hope everybody stops blaming each other and starts solving the problem. And the problem is we have no standards for pet toys."
In the meantime, how can pet owners tell if their dogs or cats have lead poisoning?
Dr. Frederick Oehme, professor of toxicology and diagnostic medicine at Kansas State University, said symptoms can include a slightly anorexic appearance, loss of appetite, and behavior changes like twitching and whining in their sleep.
In more advanced cases, he said, there are neurological symptoms that include mild to severe seizures.
Pet owners who notice any of these symptoms in their dogs or cats should immediately contact their veterinarian, Dr. Oehme said.
"Veterinarians are in a very unique position because, when they see lead poisoning in a pet, the veterinarian can then ask if other members of the family -- particularly children -- have been checked for lead poisoning since they live in the same environment," he said. "I've seen a dog that tested with high levels of lead ... from lead soldering, and, when the owner was tested for lead, he also had high blood levels of lead."
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