Angie and Matt Viets thought they had taken all the right safety measures to protect their children. They secured dressers to walls, covered electrical sockets and searched for the perfect car seat.
But this fall, the Lawrence couple, like many parents, were smacked with the unexpected.
They discovered their 3-year-old son, Beckett, had been sleeping with a dangerous toxin for almost two years.
The culprit: Curious George.
The doll, which is one of Beckett's favorites, was one of millions of toys recalled in the past year for having too much lead in the paint. After the recall, the parents took a close look and found paint chipped off the monkey's plastic face.
"It is extremely frustrating, given we spend so much time baby-proofing our homes," Angie Viets said. "Just to later learn the thing that could be possibly extremely damaging is the toys we are buying for our children."
They threw away recalled Thomas & Friends train toys and the Laugh and Learn kitchen set for their other child, newborn Sophia. But somehow the Vietses couldn't part with their son's stuffed monkey. So, Curious George sits on top of their closet where he can't be reached by their children.
"These toxic levels of paint - there is a degree of uncertainty," Angie Viets said.
In the past fiscal year, 19 products covering 3.8 million toys have been recalled because of the amount of lead contained in the paint.
A study released last week showed that out of more than a thousand toys tested, one-third had levels of lead above what the United States had deemed safe for children.
Despite the recalls, there hasn't been a single case of a child becoming injured from the toys with lead-based paint, according to the Consumer Product Safety Commission. One child, a 4-year-old boy from Minneapolis, died in March 2006 after swallowing a heart-shaped charm bracelet. The jewelry had lead in it.
Ed Kang, spokesman for the commission, said the reason for the recalls is because the toys don't meet U.S. safety standards. For there to be exposure, Kang said a child would have to be "sucking on a toy for hours and hours on end."
"It is an emotional issue when you are talking about a toxic chemical in your child's toys," Kang said. "But the reality is we recalled a few dozen products for lead paint and there have been no injuries out of the millions of toys."
Richard Baker, owner of a Lenexa-based environmental consulting firm that tests for lead paint, said there has been a degree of overreaction.
"(Some think) that just because that toy is sitting in the house and it's got lead on it that everyone in that house is being exposed, they are being lead poisoned. Which obviously that is not anywhere near the case," Baker said.
Young most threatened
The real concern comes with children under age 6, especially those still putting anything they can reach into their mouths.
"That really is the only inherent danger when the paint starts to come off by way of banging them off the floor or putting them in their mouths and scraping the paint off with their little teeth," Baker said.
Baker has been around lead paint for decades. He has tested thousands of toys for the Consumer Product Safety Commission, run lead poisoning prevention programs, helped write legislation for state and federal governments, and trained others to test for lead.
He said as a general rule, ingesting a single paint chip the size of a person's thumbnail is enough to cause a child to have too much lead in their blood.
"It takes very little amounts of lead to cause potentially irreversible damage," he said.
Lead poisoning shows few symptoms. If they occur, they are fatigue, headache, irritability and loss of appetite.
It can be years later before the consequences of lead poisoning are seen - most concerning are lower intelligence levels and a link to behavioral and learning disorders.
Lynn Marotz, an assistant professor of applied behavioral science at Kansas University, said the body can't get rid of lead. So, lead stays in the body and accumulates.
"It's one of those insidious conditions," Marotz said.
When large amounts of lead enter the body, children develop blood anemia, severe stomachaches, muscle weakness and brain damage. Children have died from lead poisoning.
The best way to tell whether a child has lead poisoning is through a blood test. Baker believes every child from age 6 months to 6 years should be tested at least once, if not annually.
Just 6 percent of all children under age 6 were tested in 2005 in Douglas County, according to the most recent data from the Kansas Department of Health and Environment.
However, that could be changing. The lab at Lawrence Memorial Hospital has seen a slight increase in blood test for lead levels since the recent rash of recalls. In the first half of 2007, the lab processed roughly 40 to 50 tests per month. During the past six months, the numbers increased to about 70 per month.
All of us have some level of lead in our blood stream. The metal can be found in batteries, ammunition, fishing lures, old water pipes and toys.
Baker said the average American has about 1.7 to 1.8 micrograms of lead per deciliter of blood. Government health agencies believe that a level of 10 micrograms is a potential problem. When Baker started working with lead poisoning in 1975, he said the average level was around 12 micrograms.
In 1978, the United States banned lead-based paints in houses and later reduced the amount of lead in gasoline.
The paints, stains and varnishes found in old homes are still the major cause for lead poisoning. Those paints have a much higher lead content than what is found in the recalled toys, Baker said. On the other hand, children generally don't chew on walls, hardwood floors or antique furniture.