Consumer Groups, media and panicky politicians led a feeding frenzy last year over toy recalls that resulted in remarkably broad legislation restricting the presence of lead in children's products, yes our old friend the CPSIA. Of course, the determined "do-gooders" in the consumer group corner have asserted that there is "no safe level" for lead and thus, it makes "sense" to eliminate it totally from children's products (and the world at large, if possible). Remember, you can't be too safe . . . . A leader of this charge was a staff person at the American Academy of Pediatrics who presented unchallenged statistics in September 2007 to a House Subcommittee. With the lilly-white AAP backing of this notion, Congress swung into action and outlawed lead effectively from all children's products. Sounds good, right? Well, as with most manias, the "unintended consequences" have been terrible. This has been well-documented in this space.
Interestingly, I found an article recently that suggested that elimination of lead from circuitry (solder), courtesy of our friends in EU bureaucracy, may have played a role in the recent terrible Washington, D.C. Metro train crash. [Lest we forget, it is worth noting that the motivation behind the EU's elimination of lead from solder was protection of the environment, not a fear over direct human poisoning, the basis of the current U.S. mania.] This article points out something that the amateur scientist fear mongers may not have known, which is that lead plays a useful role in solder, and in its absence . . . more "unintended consequences". In this case, the consequence is something called "tin whiskers", a phenomenon created by "untamed" tin in solder. Tin behaves differently in the absence of lead, and will grow "whiskers" that create electrical shorts. The article suggests that this explains the intermittent electrical failures of the crash detection system on the Washington Metro. Other deadly accidents have been linked to tin whiskers. Precautionary, indeed.
Among the many things that disgust me about the lead mania is the illusion (delusion) that controlling lead-in-substrate in children's products will have any material impact on exposure to lead. In fact, it's just a way to put blinders on. By publicly and notoriously addressing the "lead problem" - problem solved!! This is absurd, of course, but has only encouraged the maniacs. Take, for example, the recent hubbub over the Obama's "lead-contaminated" vegetable garden. Incredibly, the lead levels detected in the White House garden (presumably by people with too much time on their hands) was 93 ppm. Our dear friends at the AAP assert that background lead levels in dirt is 40 ppm. This was the rationale behind the recent Illinois lead labeling legislation profiled in this space. As the Obama article makes clear, the controversy over lead in dirt is just politics, not science, and is WAY out of proportion to both the health threat and the presence of lead all around us. Dr. Kimberly Gray, Director of the Environmental Sciences Program at Northwestern University comments: "It’s inflammatory. 93 ppm is well below background lead for an urban environment. It’s what you’d expect just from atmospheric deposition." The article continues: "Atmospheric deposition is lead particles that fall out of the sky, from things like auto emissions." You mean there's lead in the air, too - oh, no!
The do-gooders have infinite justifications for their bans of lead in children's products, their current obsession, but (other than economic devastation) what has actually been accomplished for the American public by their handiwork? Only the illusion of "better safety". The legislation markets the idea that elimination of insoluble lead from substrate makes a marginal, incremental difference to health, as though it were the only (or principal) source of lead in our bodies. This flawed logic also underlies the dangerous Proposition 65 in California. The labels required by Proposition 65 sounds sensible, intended to advise consumers of the presence of "toxins" in their products (even if legally there) so they can decide whether to expose themselves or their families to the "deadly" substances. Who could object to that? Well . . . the selective presence of these labels gives false comfort to consumers who may believe that the labels highlight the ONLY places where the noted risk occurs. The implicit reasoning goes like this . . . why would the government require lead labels on lip gloss if the government knows that this risk is miniscule compared to MANY other sources of lead in daily life? Aren't they requiring labels on EVERYTHING with lead? And, if so (the government wouldn't let us down!), isn't this buying decision critical, a highlighted choice that might make the difference between good health and some form of miserable, painful, lingering death?! That's the implication, however erroneous.
I do not accept that this is the only way to run a sensible society. Canada has attempted to truncate our fancy new safety system, by tailoring it to a narrow and specific class of products or situations. That seems like a good place to start. It's time for all concerned to acknowledge that the "perfect legislative process" had a faulty outcome. Real leaders are prepared to admit error and to do the right thing for their troops. Congress???