Monday, Nov. 19, 2007 | When she gave birth four months ago, Laura Benson thought she’d done everything possible to protect Henry, her first born, from exposure to lead.

She’d bought wooden toys and had others tested. Her home was safe; it had been built after 1978, when lead paint was banned.

More than most, the 30-year-old mother knows the risks posed by lead, a neurotoxin that can permanently damage children’s nervous systems, create learning disabilities and cause death in severe cases.

Benson is a policy advocate at the National City-based Environmental Health Coalition, a nonprofit that aims to educate parents about the threat lead poses. She previously worked for a Portland nonprofit, where she designed lead hazard workshops.

She knew lead had been found in some vinyl lunchboxes. So when the city of San Diego held a lead-poisoning prevention fair in October, she tested a vinyl cooler that came with her breast pump.

The results came back positive. The cooler, designed to keep bottles of breast milk cold, contained lead.

“It just boggled my mind that it could be possible, that a product designed for nursing mothers and babies could have lead in it,” Benson said. “We think we know about what might have lead in it. But you just never know. Every day there’s something new.”

Nearly 30 years after being banned in paint and 10 years since its removal from gasoline, lead remains a serious threat to the health of children throughout San Diego County. Although the number of poisoning cases has dropped 33 percent since the 1990s, an average of 52 children are treated annually through the county’s Childhood Lead Poisoning Program. Last year, 60 children were treated. Most were babies.

While the nation’s attention has been focused on the presence of lead in toys and Mattel Inc.’s recall of more than 21 million Chinese-made toys earlier this year, advocates and public health officials say lead paint found in homes remains their primary concern.

“In terms of the toys, while that’s a concern and you want to protect kids,” said Ken August, spokesman for the California Department of Public Health, “the greatest threat remains lead paint from older homes.”

Lead, which was used to improve the durability of paint until its 1978 ban, is a factor in 24 percent of county poisoning cases since 2000. Imported home remedies such as paylooah, a Southeast Asian rash treatment, and Azarcon, a Mexican folk treatment for abdominal symptoms, also played a significant role. The folk medicines were responsible for 25 percent of poisoning cases.

But it can still be found in more traditional products.

Jeff Jones, a city of San Diego asbestos and lead inspector, confirmed the positive test result in Benson’s cooler. Both he and Benson said they did not believe the presence of lead presented an immediate health hazard, because the packaging wasn’t deteriorating.

The cooler was made in China by Medela Inc., a Switzerland-based breast pump manufacturer with an Illinois-based American subsidiary. Rachel Mennell, a company spokeswoman, said in an e-mail that Medela routinely spot tests its products and recent tests showed no detectable lead levels in the coolers.

“We have reason to believe when products leave our facility, they are safe, and lead-free,” Mennell wrote. She said she would speak to Benson to ensure the cooler was tested for lead and replaced.

Though the county has no records of lead poisoning from toys, Tom Christensen, a county Health and Human Services spokesman, said it is a factor in only a small percentage of cases.

But the toy recall shone a spotlight on the proliferation of lead in products previously considered benign and, in the process, created a dilemma for lead education advocates. While the threat from deteriorating lead paint in homes remains their major concern, the American public has turned its attention to lead in toys and other products.

“As a parent, I hear there’s lead in toys, that gets me more excited than lead in paint in old houses,” Benson said. “It’s not as easy of a solution. I can throw away a lead toy but I can’t move out of my house.”

Leticia Ayala, a lead-free campaign director at the Environmental Health Coalition, said the issue’s resurgence should renew a focus on lead paint in homes.

San Diego’s City Council is scheduled in January to consider an ordinance that would require inspection and remediation of any lead hazards in homes before they are sold. Homes built before 1978, when lead paint was banned, would have to be inspected and deemed free of threats from deteriorating paint. When the paint turns into dust, young children can ingest it.

The Mayor’s Office opposes the requirement, saying it would impose repair costs up to $5,000 on home sales. Abby Jarl, a policy advisor to Mayor Jerry Sanders, said the requirement “goes above and beyond” the state’s lead-safe practices and would put an extra burden on homeowners.

The mayor supports other aspects of the ordinance, Jarl said, including a requirement to post signs at home-improvement stores that warn of the dangers of disturbing lead-based paint.

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