Some 1,700 pairs of children's shoes contaminated with three times the legal limit for lead landed at a Seattle port on Wednesday. The $23,000 worth of footwear, made in China and destined for U.S. stores, joins a growing list of toxic consumer products -- from jewelry kits to toy robots -- that have been seized by customs agents.
Environmental health experts, who point out that any single seized shipment may reflect the existence of even more dangerous products that could be slipping across the border and onto children's feet, or into their hands and mouths, were not shocked by the news.
"This doesn't surprise me one bit," said Bruce Lanphear, a researcher at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia. He noted that the average person is are probably unaware of the range of possibly lead-tainted products on store shelves and in homes.
"We don't think much of it," Lanphear said, referring to the newly discovered potential source of exposure. "But just by putting shoes on and off, lead can get on a kid's hands, and they might put their hands in their mouth."
Exposure from shoes and other consumer products is not as worrisome as lead paint, which contains far higher levels of the toxic heavy metal. Still, Lanphear noted that all exposures add up. "You might get a little from shoes, from dust that flakes off the walls, from food," he said. "By themselves, shoes may not be of consequence. But that's not the way the world works. We are exposed to lead in so many products."
The risks may be particularly critical for a young child. "These are not just little adults," said Steven Gilbert, director of the Institute of Neurotoxicology and Neurological Disorders and affiliate professor at the University of Washington's School of Public Health. "They breathe more and eat more for their body size. A small dose could be a big exposure."
Gilbert said that he has even seen shoes in his grandchildren's mouths. "There is no good level of lead exposure," he added.
As The Huffington Post has reported, lead can be toxic to the developing brain at very low levels.
Judy Staudt, a Seattle-based import specialist with U.S. Customs and Border Protection, recalled past shipments of children's scooters and Fox Sports NFL robot action figures, which were also seized due to high levels of lead.
"We can't let our guard down for anything," said Staudt. "I mean, who would have thought that China would be putting plastic in pet food?"
"It's always possible that anything with dye or paint on it will have some toxic chemical in it," said Ivy Sager-Rosenthal, campaign director for the nonprofit Washington Toxics Coalition, adding that 85 percent of toys sold in the U.S. were made in China.
"Parents need to be vigilant," she said. "Costume jewelry, princess tiaras, those kinds of things, can contain lots of lead and cadmium. Even your garden hose may contain lead."
U.S. Customs and Border Protection works with the Consumer Product Safety Commission to prevent a "vast variety" of potentially harmful products from entering U.S. ports, explained Staudt. Among their key targets: toys and other products that could pose a health or safety concern for kids.
In 2011, 9,119 shipments of lead-contaminated products, valued at more than $24 million, were seized at ports of entry across the country, according to the customs agency.
"It is really welcome news that border patrol was able to detect these shoes," said Sager-Rosenthal. "The laws are working, and they were able to keep harmful products from getting to the [sales] floor."
The shoes, which tested at 300 parts per million of lead, are now destined for a landfill or incinerator. Yet not every shoe gets examined on its way into the U.S., according to Staudt.
"It is also up to manufacturers and distributors to make sure the products they're putting out for sale are safe," said Sager-Rosenthal. "These shoes came from China, but it is ultimately the people who are selling products to consumers who are responsible."
Lanphear noted that it's not just American children who benefit from seizures by customs agents.
"This is really part of a larger effort, on the global level, to phase out lead," he said. "Even if shoes are a smaller source for a child here, for the worker and the worker's family it might be more important. To the extent that we can regulate consumer products and keep lead down to a minimum, we will not only protect children here but also in China."