The Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) is denying an Associated Press report that pointed to potential flaws in the agency's testing procedures of children's vinyl lunch boxes, despite actions by New York and Connecticut to remove the lunbh boxes from store shelves.
The AP story suggests that the CPSC may have hidden the true levels of lead found in the lunch boxes, a charge the agency denies.
A Freedom of Information Act request filed by the AP yielded 1,500 pages of documents that show the CPSC tested 60 vinyl lunch boxes in 2005 and that one in five of those boxes contained hazardous levels of lead.
Yet after the testing process, the CPSC publicly said that it found "no instances of hazardous levels."
In November 2005, New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer reached an agreement with Fast Forward, LLC, a wholesaler of consumer products, to recall thousands of children's lunch boxes containing lead. Wal-Mart and Target said they had voluntarily pulled those lunch boxes from their shelves.
In December 2005, Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal demanded that stores immediately stop selling the lunch boxes.
"Lead, lunch and children are a perilous mix," Blumenthal said. "The discovery of lead -- 12 times the allowable limit -- in children's lunchboxes is appalling. Our law is clear: Lead-laden lunchboxes are illegal.
The CPSC's scientists used two tests: One that tested the percent of lead found in dissolved chunks of the vinyl and another that tested how much lead would rub off the exterior.
With the first test, one in five contained more than the federal minimum for paints and other products. One bag contained 16 times the acceptable percentage of lead.
But the results of those tests were not used. Instead the agency focused on the second tests, which yielded lower levels of lead, especially after the scientists changed their testing protocol.
The scientists originally tested the boxes with a few swipes, but then found that if they swiped the same spot over and over, the average result was lower. The CPSC went with the average result for their final verdict.
"The more you wipe, the less lead you actually find," CPSC spokeswoman Julie Vallese explained to the AP. "With fewer wipes, we got a higher detection of lead presence. We thought more wipes was closer to reflecting how you would interact with your lunch box. It was more realistic."
Also, the scientists tested only the outside of the vinyl boxes. Vallese said this was because food in lunch boxes "may be" contained in foil or a bag.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) had a different opinion when the CPSC shared its previously secret results. The FDA sent letters to the vinyl lunch box manufacturers warning them that their products may contain dangerous levels of lead.
Outside researchers have agreed with the CPSC's original results that the levels of lead in the lunch boxes are dangerous.
In reaction to the thousands of newspapers and websites that have syndicated the AP's story, the CPSC responded yesterday saying, "Recent news reports and postings on special interest group Web sites have provided information that incorrectly interprets the findings of the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) in testing vinyl lunchboxes."
"Under CPSC Federal law, total lead does not dictate action. Instead decisions must consider the real world interaction of child and product and the accessibility of lead from the product," the statement continues. "No matter how the data are analyzed, the staff risk assessment would still conclude that the lead exposure from vinyl lunchboxes does not present a risk to health for action under CPSC's law."
The statement also notes that "more recently, the CPSC began rulemaking to consider banning lead from children's metal jewelry."
However, as ConsumerAffairs.com has reported, the commission currently cannot proceed on any rulemaking because there are not enough commissioners to constitute a quorum. Also, in an interview last week, Vallese told ConsumerAffairs.com that the commission was still in the research phase of the children's jewelry issue and nowhere close to a rulemaking.