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Toxic Levels of Lead in Many Thrift, Antique, and Resale Items

Researchers find very high levels of lead in toys, household items, and antique doors

As consumers try to scale back and save money, many turn to thrift or resale shops to purchase jewelry, toys, or household items. But a new study warns toxic chemicals could be lurking in many of those gently-used products.

While the government has recently been cracking down on toxic chemicals in our everyday items, they're only focusing on products that are new off the assembly line.

Researchers purchased a collection of used items from second-hand stores, junk shops and antiques stores in Virginia, New York and Oregon and found many of them contained surface lead concentrations more than 700 times higher than the federal limit.

The items included salvaged construction pieces, antique toys, common dishware, jewelry and other collectibles.

The researchers tested the items for lead while in the stores, using a qualitative swab test. Those that tested positive were purchased. They were able to find items that tested positive in every store they visited.

Using X-ray fluorescence at the Geoarcheological Laboratory at UC Berkeley, the items were quantitatively tested for lead content. Nineteen of the 28 items violated the federal standard for lead, which is 600 parts per million.

Among the items that contained high levels of lead were a salt shaker lid, small red toy teapot, a Garfield cup, a red casserole dish, a potato ricer, an ice cream scoop, a Japanese wine cup, a Pewter bowl, and a turtle necklace.

The amount of lead ranged from twice the federal limit in the ice cream scoop to 714 times the limit in the salt shaker lid.

Two of the items tested were salvaged construction items, which are widely promoted in popular TV shows for home decorating or remodeling. Both pieces of salvage had peeling and chalky paint that rubbed off on the hands of one of the researchers.

One of the salvaged pieces, a white window frame, had 4,747 parts per million of lead, and a blue window shutter had 23,161 parts per million of lead.

Study co-author, Anna Harding, a professor of public health at Oregon State University, said a used white painted entry door that was on sale for $895 tested positive for lead.

She said the trend of home decorating with salvage means that many middle and upper-middle class consumers are buying items in second-hand stores for the salvage value, or for an antique look. However, some of these products could be dangerous.

"Many health care providers assume the only children at risk for lead poisoning are those who live in poor neighborhoods, where lead exposure has historically been more of an issue," Harding said. "Many providers may not think to suggest blood lead screenings for patients in middle- or upper-class families. The public health threat to all people, regardless of income level, is very real."

"The sale of used items in the United States is not regulated by any federal agency and as a result, it is possible that Americans are bringing the lead poisoning hazards of past generations back into their homes," said lead study author, Laurel Sharmer of the State University of New York. "It is very important for consumers to understand that you can't tell if a product contains lead by looking at it."

The researchers acknowledged that it may be impossible, and likely very expensive to regulate the sale of used goods at flea markets, thrift stores, rummage sales and over the Internet.

Instead, they recommend a national public health education campaign aimed at making consumers aware that lead can be present in almost any kind of used consumer product and it is virtually impossible to tell whether or not it does by looking at it. Such items must be tested to be sure they are safe.

Also, children should never be allowed to come into contact with antiques or used products sold by a seller who is not regulated by a government agency such as the Consumer Product Safety Administration or the FDA, the researchers said.

Used dishware and kitchen utensils should not be used for preparing, serving or storing food. Construction debris and salvage should be considered to have lead until proven safe.

Steven Shackley of the University of California, Berkeley co-authored the study with Sharmer and Harding.

The results of the study are published in the December issue of The Journal of Environmental Health.

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