Fact Check

Lunch Boxes and Lead

Do children's vinyl lunch boxes contain dangerous amounts of lead?

Published Aug 28, 2009

Claim:   Some children's vinyl lunch boxes contain unsafe levels of lead.

Status:   Multiple:

  • Tests have found some children's soft vinyl lunch boxes contain lead:  True.
  • Children's lunch boxes contain levels of lead unsafe with ordinary exposure:   Undetermined.

Example:   [Collected on the Internet, 2005]

A Back to School Warning:

Children's Vinyl Lunch Boxes Can Contain Dangerous Levels of Lead

Oakland, CA - The Center for Environmental Health (CEH) announced it is filing lawsuits today against makers and retailers of soft vinyl lunch boxes that can expose children to harmful levels of lead. The Center has also notified several other companies of violations under California's toxics law Proposition 65 (Prop 65) for lunch boxes with high lead levels. The lawsuits and violation notices against companies including Toys "R" Us, Warner Brothers, DC Comics, Time Warner, Walgreens, and others involve many lunch boxes featuring beloved children's characters including Superman, Tweety Bird, Powerpuff Girls, and Hamtaro. The level of lead in one lunch box, an Angela Anaconda box made by Targus International, tested at 56,400 parts per million (ppm) of lead, more than 90 times the 600 ppm legal limit for lead in paint in children's products.

"Lead exposure should not be on the lunch menu when kids' go back to school this fall," said Michael Green, CEH Executive Director. "There is no reason to expose children to any lead from lunch boxes. We are calling on these companies to recall these products and take action to eliminate lead from their products in the future."

Initial independent laboratory testing commissioned by CEH has already found seventeen lunch boxes with high lead levels, and the group's investigation is ongoing. In addition to the testing on the Angela Anaconda lunch box, tests on other lunch boxes showed levels of lead between two and twenty-five times the legal limit for lead paint in children's products. In most cases, the highest lead levels were found in the lining of lunch boxes, where lead could come into direct contact with food. Lead is known to be harmful to children even in minute amounts, as it can impair brain development and cause other behavioral and
developmental problems. Children may be exposed to lead from lunch boxes when they eat food that has been stored in them. Handling the lunchboxes just before eating could also be an exposure risk.

It is not possible to tell by appearance whether a vinyl lunch box may contain lead, so CEH is advising parents to avoid vinyl lunch boxes altogether.

"Parents may need to seek out alternatives, since many mass produced lunch boxes are vinyl or vinyl-lined," said Green. "A reusable cloth bag would be a good alternative." Parents can find information on how to test for lead in their children's lunch boxes at home at www.cehca.org/lunchboxes.

The CEH lawsuits were filed today against lunch box producers Igloo and InGear, and against retailers Toys "R" Us, Walgreens, Big Lots, and Ross Stores. Earlier this year, CEH sent notices of Prop 65 violations to Targus International, DC Comics, Time Warner, Warner Brothers, Binney & Smith (a division of Hallmark and the makers of Crayola-brand lunch boxes), Fast Forward LLC, and Holiday Fair Incorporated. Under Prop 65, companies have sixty days to respond to violation notices, after which lawsuits can be filed. CEH expects to file more notifications of lunch boxes that violate Prop 65 in the near future. Photos of the lunch boxes can be found at www.cehca.org/lunchboxes.htm.

Test Your Child's Lunch Box

Because it is not possible to tell by appearance whether a vinyl lunch box may contain lead, CEH is advising parents to avoid buying vinyl lunch boxes altogether as we cannot guarantee they are lead free. You can test vinyl lunch boxes you already own using a hand-held lead testing kit, often available at hardware stores. Two reliable and easy-to-use brands are PACE's Lead Alert and LeadCheck (also available online at www.leadcheck.com)

If your child's lunch box tests positive, or you need assistance obtaining a testing kit please call CEH at (510) 594-9864. We can help you interpret the results and can use your product as evidence in our ongoing work get the lead out of our children's lunch boxes.

Commonly Asked Questions
What products did CEH test?
CEH has only tested soft plastic lunch boxes. We don't know whether lead may be present in hard plastic or metal boxes at this time. In most cases the lead is in the plastic lining of the box, although some also have lead in the exterior plastic. At this time we have not found any lunch boxes by Disney, Thermos, LL Bean, Hello Kitty or California Innovations that have lead - however, we have by no means tested all lunch boxes by any of these makers.

How dangerous are the lunch boxes with lead?
The levels CEH found in the lunch boxes are not high enough to cause acute lead poisoning during normal use. However, if your child is exposed to lead from other sources, a leaded lunch box would add to their health risk. Because lead has been shown to cause developmental problem in young children at very low levels, CEH believes it is important to eliminate all controllable sources of lead exposure, including lunch boxes.

Does my lunch box have lead?
The majority of lunch boxes that CEH tested do not contain lead, so there is a good chance that your lunch box may be safe. However, because it is impossible to tell by looking, at this point the only way to know for sure is to test the lunch box yourself.

How do I test my lunch box?
You can test vinyl lunch boxes using a hand-held lead testing kit, available at most hardware stores. Two reliable and easy-to-use brands are PACE's Lead Alert and LeadCheck (also available online at www.leadcheck.com). They cost less than $5 a piece, and come with instructions. Both of these brands will turn a bright pink color when they are rubbed on a surface containing lead. A clear or orange swab means there is not lead.

What do I do if my lunch box has lead?
If your child's lunch box tests positive, we recommend that you do not use it any longer. Please send CEH your positive lunch box so that we can add it to our investigation and notify other parents.

What alternatives are there to vinyl lunch boxes?
CEH does not have enough information at this time to recommend any brand of soft plastic lunch boxes. Because it is not possible to tell by appearance whether a box may contain lead, CEH is advising parents to avoid buying vinyl lunch boxes altogether, and to test their lunch box if they are concerned it may contain lead. A reusable cloth bag or paper bag is a good alternative.

Where is the lead from?
CEH believes that the lead is intentionally added to the vinyl (PVC) plastic as either a stabilizing agent or pigment.

Should my child be tested?
Normal use of positive lunchboxes CEH has tested would not cause acute lead poisoning. However, if your child is also exposed to other environmental exposures to lead such as lead paint, the cumulative effect could be toxic. A blood test is the only definitive way to test for lead poisoning.

A child with lead poisoning may not look sick, but may experience stomachache, poor appetite, hyperactivity and headaches. Low level chronic exposure to lead can cause hearing problems, brain and nerve damage, stunted growth, digestive problems and reproductive problems (in adults).

Origins:   On 31 August 2005, the Center for Environmental Health, an Oakland-based environmental group that specializes in identifying hazardous


sources of lead in the environment, announced that testing it had performed revealed the presence of that element in a variety of soft vinyl lunchboxes marketed to children. Subsequent to that discovery, this private non-profit group filed lawsuits against some of the producers and retailers

The CEHCA says the 27 lunchboxes that produced lead-positive results when examined with at-home lead detection kits contained anywhere from double to 90 times the legal limit for lead paint in children's products. It packed off those 27 containers to an independent laboratory for more rigorous testing; that study found 17 of the lunchboxes contained lead in excess of federal safety standards.

Lara Cushing, research director for the CEHCA, said the study revealed the lead was not contained within the vinyl material itself but rather was present on the surface of the lunchboxes. "It's not bound up in the plastic," she said. "It's sloughing off. It can come off on your hand. It can rub off on your food."

A reporter in Sacramento ran her own test on eight vinyl lunchboxes she collected; her examination with at-home lead testing kits showed two of the lunchboxes contained lead. How much lead was not noted.

Officials for the Consumer Product Safety Commission said it was investigating the CEHCA's findings on lead in lunchboxes. In October 2005, it published a statement on the likelihood of lead found in such containers presenting a danger to children:

Q: Recent news reports have indicated that there are dangerous levels of lead in kid’s lunch boxes, is this correct?

A: CPSC staff has tested samples of children's lunch boxes for accessible lead and found no instances of hazardous levels. The staff tested the inside and outside of each lunch box and the preliminary results were consistently below one microgram (one millionth of a gram) of lead. This is an extremely low level of lead and would not present a health hazard to children.

Q: How can you be sure that children are not being exposed to hazardous levels of lead in their lunch boxes?

A: One way that children can be exposed to lead is from handling objects with accessible lead and then placing their hands in their mouths. Based on the low levels of lead found in our tests, in most cases, children would have to rub their lunch box and then lick their hands upwards of 100 times a day, for about 15-30 days, in order for the lunch box to present a health hazard.

Q: What is CPSC doing to prevent issues like this from coming up in the future?

A: CPSC staff encourages companies to use alternatives to lead in products intended for children. CPSC staff also recommends that manufacturers and importers of vinyl lunch boxes test their products for accessible lead using the CPSC staff's laboratory test procedure. Finding and preventing lead hazards in children's products is an important part of our mission and CPSC has a proven record of working with companies to recall products that pose a lead hazard to children.

While exposure to lead presents a hazard to all and poses an especial danger to children, the amounts of the element being uncovered in vinyl lunchboxes are not sufficient to cause acute lead poisoning. However, because long-term low-level lead exposure can result in serious harm to those subjected to it, lead is to be avoided whenever and wherever possible.

Lead poisoning can reportedly lower intelligence, cause mental retardation, memory problems, depression, fatigue, hyperactivity, aggression, hearing loss, liver or kidney damage, osteoporosis, high blood pressure and anemia. Very high levels can damage the nervous system, kidneys and major organs and even result in seizures or death. It can also lead to infertility in men and cause spontaneous abortion in women. In the final stages of lead poisoning, the victim experiences convulsions, paralysis, blindness, delusions, and then coma. People can and have died of lead


In times long past, lead was to be found in numerous everyday items, including cisterns and aquaducts, pottery, pans, hair dyes, cosmetics, and medical nostrums. Toy soldiers were cast in it. Port wine was protected by it. Church roofs were covered with it. The presence of lead in everyday life has since been considerably reduced and our bodies are far less riddled with this deadly substance than were those of our ancestors, but this element will likely always be part of our surroundings and of us.

The two major sources of lead poisoning in the United States have been lead-based paint, which was restricted in 1978, and leaded gasoline, which was phased out in the early 1990s. However, lead is still found in paint manufactured before 1978, in soil and dust (particularly next to busy roads or factories), in some imported or handmade pottery and tableware, and in imported home remedies and cosmetics.

Yet most of the lead we take in comes from our diet. "The average daily diet probably contains more than 200 micrograms of lead, of which about 10 micrograms gets into the blood, where it is joined by about 5 micrograms of lead from our lungs (depending upon where we live), so that our daily intake probably comes to about 15 micrograms and the body can easily rid itself of such an amount," says John Emsley. Lead finds its way into the food chain because all plants contain some lead, although not very much.

Because lead is a naturally-occurring element found in the soil, it does manage to get into things. Care therefore has to be taken by manufacturers to detect its presence in goods destined for consumer use. Various lead-laden gewgaws and foodstuffs do arrive on the market, however, especially among goods produced in other parts of the world and imported to the U.S. In 2004, California's attorney general sued dozens of companies that make or sell imported candies containing lead, and in 2005 the California Department of Health Services urged consumers to stay away from candy produced in Mexico that contained tamarind or chili powder after tests found possible lead contamination in those edibles. In 1994 an outbreak of lead poisoning in Hungary was traced to the use of that element by an unscrupulous or unknowing manufacturer as a colorant in paprika.

Barbara "get the lead out" Mikkelson

Update:   In September 2007, families were advised by the California Department of Public Health to rid themselves of CDPH lunchboxes because three of the ones it tested produced positive results for lead. The canvas lunch boxes that showed elevated levels of the element were green with a logo reading "Eat fruits & vegetables and be active." Approximately 56,000 of these lunch boxes have been distributed throughout California at health fairs and other events.

Additional information:

    CDC on Lead   Lead   (Centers for Disease Control)
    Virginia Lead Poisoning Education Project   Make Your Home a Lead-Safe Zone   (Virginia Commonwealth University)
    Lead Poisoning   Lead Poisoning   (Dr. Joseph F. Smith Medical Library)

Last updated:   22 September 2007


  Sources Sources:

    Emsley, John.   The Elements of Murder.

    New York; Oxford University Press, 2005.   ISBN 0-19-280599-1   (pp. 261-283).

    Griffith, Dorsey.   "State Warns of Lead in Candy."

    Sacramento Bee.   7 July 2005   (p. A5).

    Lundstrom, Marjie.   "Toxic Metal Found in Lunchboxes."

    Sacramento Bee.   17 September 2005   (p. A3).

    Roan, Shari.   "An Unsavory Addition to Kids' Lunchboxes: Lead."

    Los Angeles Times.   12 September 2005   (p. F3).

    KABC-TV [Los Angeles].   "People Urged to Dispose of CDPH Lunch Boxes."

    20 September 2007.

    The [Raleigh] News & Observer.   "Toxic Lead Finds a New Avenue."

    15 September 2005   (p. B2).

    United Press International.   "Lead Reportedly Found in Lunchboxes."

    20 September 2005.

David Mikkelson founded the site now known as snopes.com back in 1994.

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