AP probe finds high levels of lead and cadmium in glasses

AP, LOS ANGELES

Tue, Nov 23, 2010 - Page 1

Drinking glasses depicting comic book and movie characters such as Superman, Wonder Woman and the Tin Man from The Wizard of Oz exceed federal limits for lead in children’s products by up to 1,000 times, according to laboratory testing commissioned by The Associated Press.

The decorative enamel on the superhero and Oz sets — made in China and purchased at a Warner Brothers Studios store in Burbank, California — contained between 16 percent and 30.2 percent lead. The federal limit on children’s products is 0.03 percent.

The same glasses also contained relatively high levels of the even-more-dangerous cadmium, though there are no federal limits on that metal in design surfaces.

In separate testing to recreate regular handling, other glasses shed small, but notable amounts of lead or cadmium from their decorations. Federal regulators have worried that toxic metals rubbing onto children’s hands can get into their mouths. Among the brands on those glasses were Coca-Cola, Walt Disney, Burger King and McDonald’s.

The testing was part of AP’s ongoing investigation into dangerous metals in children’s products and was conducted in response to a recall by McDonald’s of 12 million glasses this summer because cadmium escaped from designs depicting four characters in the latest Shrek movie.

The maker of those glasses said in June that the products were made according to standard industry practices, which includes the routine use of cadmium to create red and similar colors.

To assess potential problems with glass collectibles beyond the Shrek set, AP bought and analyzed new glasses off the shelf, and old ones from online auctions, thrift shops and a flea market. The buys were random.

The fact that it was so easy to find glasses that appeal to kids and appear to violate the federal lead law suggests that contamination in glassware is wider than one McDonald’s promotion.

The irony of the latest findings is that AP’s original investigation in January revealed that some Chinese manufacturers were substituting cadmium for banned lead in children’s jewelry — that finding eventually led to the McDonald’s-Shrek recall. Now, because of the new testing primarily for cadmium in other glassware, lead is back in the spotlight as well.

AP’s testing, conducted by ToyTestingLab of Rhode Island, found that the enamel used to color the Tin Man had the highest lead levels, at 1,006 times the federal limit for children’s products.

Every Oz and superhero glass tested exceeded the government limit: The Lion by 827 times and Dorothy by 770 times; Wonder Woman by 533 times and Superman by 617 times.

Federal regulators will decide whether the superhero and Oz glasses are “children’s products” and thus subject to strict lead limits. If US Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) staffers conclude the glasses fall outside that definition, the lead levels would be legal.

The agency’s own analysis, obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, says the Oz and superhero glasses appeal to kids.

“Licensed characters based on action superhero themes or friendship themes are very popular” with children ages six to eight, CPSC staff wrote when explaining why the Shrek glasses would end up in children’s hands.

Warner Brothers said, “It is generally understood that the primary consumer for these products is an adult, usually a collector.”

However, on Warner Brothers’ Web site, the superhero glasses are sold alongside kids’ T-shirts with similar images and a school lunch box. An online retailer, www.retroplanet.com, describes the 10-ounce glasses as “a perfect way to serve cold drinks to your children or guests.”

The importer, Utah-based Vandor LLC, said it “markets its products to adult collectors.” The company said less than 10,000 of each set had been sold and that the products were made under contract in China.

The company said that superhero and “Oz” glasses both passed testing done for Vandor by a CPSC-accredited lab, including the same lead content test that ToyTestingLab did for AP — a test only required of children’s products. Spokeswoman Meryl Rader did not answer when asked why a test specific to children’s products would be performed on glasses the firm said were not intended for kids.

“The results were well within the legal limits” of 0.03 percent lead, Rader wrote in an e-mail.

The company would not share those results.

Informed in general terms of AP’s results, CPSC spokesman Scott Wolfson said that the agency would pursue action against any high-lead glasses determined to be children’s products. The agency has authority to enforce lead levels for glasses going back decades, he said.

AP’s testing showed Vandor’s Chinese manufacturer also relied on cadmium. That toxic metal comprised up to 2.5 percent of the decorative surface of the Oz and superhero glasses, nearly double the levels found in the recalled Shrek glasses. But the CPSC only limits how much cadmium escapes from the designs, not how much cadmium the designs contain. Even that regulation is new: The CPSC used the Shrek glasses to establish a standard for how much cadmium coming out of children’s glassware creates a health hazard.

Five of the glasses that AP tested, including one ordered from the online Coca-Cola store, shed at least as much cadmium as the CPSC found on the Shrek glasses. While those five could have been deemed a health hazard under the CPSC guidelines used for the recall, recent revisions tripled the allowable amount of cadmium and the agency may no longer consider them a problem. The agency has said its upward revision means the Shrek glasses did not need to be recalled.

In all, AP scrutinized 13 new glasses and 22 old ones, including glasses sold during McDonald’s promotion for a 2007 Shrek movie. The used glasses date from the late 1960s to 2007, mostly from promotions at major fast-food restaurants. Thousands of such collectibles are available at online auction sites; countless others are kept in kitchen cabinets, and used regularly by children and adults.