Looking around at the toys your child has scattered across the living room floor, you may not realize that 8 out of 10 are made in China. Those became noteworthy figures last week when Fisher-Price recalled almost a million toys because their paint, applied by a company in China, contained high amounts of lead. Big Bird, Elmo, Dora and Diego are some of the 83 different types of toys sold worldwide between May and August that are cause for concern.

While Fisher-Price scrambles to find out why their long-term vendor started using lead paint on toys, and lawmakers form committees on new quality control policies, parents like you just want the bottom line: What can I do to protect my child? Here’s some info on to keep you in the know:

  • First of all, check to see if one of your child’s toys has been recalled at the Fisher-Price web site, http://service.mattel.com/us/recall.asp. If you suspect your child has played with one of the toys on the recall list, get them tested immediately for lead poisoning; it’s the only sure-fire way to know if your child is being lead-poisoned. Kristin Marstiller, Senior Program Manager with the National Safety Council, says that most pediatricians can do the blood work at their office.
  • Fisher-Price is not the only nervous ones. In June, parts and toys from the Thomas & Friends Wooden Railway line were yanked from the shelves because surface paint on the toys made in China between January 2005 and April 2006 contained lead. To keep on top of the increasingly long list of recalled toys, check with the Consumer Products Safety Commission.
  • Why is lead so dangerous for children? According to the National Safety Council, lead is a toxic metal that can damage organs, the nervous system, hearing, and mental development. What’s worse, the body can’t tell the difference between lead and calcium, so it goes right ahead and sends that lead into the bones where it can be stored for a lifetime. Children age six and under are especially at risk because lead can accumulate in their nervous systems as they grow and develop.  
  • There are home lead-test kits available, but Marstiller says they mainly test for lead dust, so they wouldn’t work as well on toys.  Parents should focus on testing the child, not the toy, according to Certified Industrial Hygienist Gary Schwartz of Phase Associates, a consulting firm that conducts surveys and assessments to evaluate chemical contaminant exposures.  
  • Lead paint in toys isn’t the only concern. If a home was built before 1978 and has not been significantly renovated, there is a chance that the paint on the walls contain lead. 1978 was the year that lead-based paint was made illegal for commercial use. “Sometimes just the first or second layer of paint will contain lead, but you’ll have flaking with all the layers. That’s a higher risk area,” Schwartz says. If you suspect your walls have lead paint, Schwartz recommends having them tested by a lead inspector. The American Industrial Hygiene Association can put you into contact with a licensed and reputable lead inspector. Most importantly, don’t try to get rid of the layer of lead paint yourself: “If you sand it down you’ll disperse the lead all over the house and it can be inhaled,” Schwartz says. 
  •  There are two essential preventative measures Marstiller suggests: hygiene and nutrition. Washing your child’s hands often will help to prevent lead from getting into her mouth. Gasoline also used to contain lead, so dirt in an area with an industrial history may be dangerous for a child to play in. Bathing your child before bedtime, and washing sheets regularly can prevent contaminated dirt from being injested or inhaled. Diet can also affect how well lead is absorbed into the body. Marstiller recommends foods rich in calcium, iron and zinc and tells parents to avoid food that is high in fat.

While parents may not be able to stop their children from playing with toys made in China, these recommendations are a start towards giving you a bit more peace of mind.

Recommended Resources:

The Consumer Products Safety Commission: www.cpsc.gov

Phase Associates ( for a great list of resources): www.phaseassociate.com/pages/links.html

Center for Science in the Public Interest: www.cspinet.org