Behind The Ghoulish Lead Inquiry

(CBS/John Filo)
Hari Sreenivasan is a CBS News correspondent based in Dallas.
Jeffrey Weidenhamer comes across as a mild-mannered, matter-of-fact chemistry professor from Ashland University in Ohio, but get him started on the amount of lead in products on store shelves today, and you'll begin to hear a combination of the urgency, disappointment and frustration in his measured voice.

On top of the courses he teaches, he has been cajoling grad students and volunteers to come in on Saturdays and help him test for high levels of lead in the trinkets, metal jewelry and plastic toys that he finds all too readily available in the cheapest discount stores around him.

His sadness flows from the fact that his ad-hoc group is perhaps able to spend more time testing all these products than the Consumer Products Safety Commission — an agency which has been complaining to congress on its antiquated facilities, limited resources, low levels of staffing and inability to nab every dangerous product landing on U.S. shores.

The past few months have shined a harsh light on products from China and the amount of lead in the paint covering toys, paint that could slowly be ingested by the children playing with them and which could eventually lead to serious health problems or in rare cases- death. Wiedenhamer and his team haven't chosen to focus on products from China, but most of the products available at the stores that sell the cheapest goods (dollar stores, etc.) are from there. He has been looking at products which would most likely find their way into the hands and mouths of children.

Wiedenhamer's disappointment and frustration spring from what he says is the lack of "any explanation" for why some of his research is acknowledged with a recall and some is not. For example a few weeks ago, he sent in a complaint with detailed lab results on a three different Halloween products; a witch pail, a skull bucket and a Frankenstein cup all had high levels of lead in the paint- but only the witch pail was initially recalled.

Now, two days before Halloween, he has filed another complaint with the CPSC — and this time his focus has been the test results of three products after looking at almost three dozen different Halloween-themed toys. The ugly teeth — fake plastic fangs which children may place in their mouth — is his greatest concern because lead is ingested through the mouth much faster than through the skin. He also identifies two different types of Halloween baskets, which have lead levels far higher than allowable.

Perhaps this is an inevitability when you combine a bureaucracy which says it is overwhelmed in regulating the safety of all imports, a consumer that is addicted to falling prices at seemingly all costs, and a public that votes with their dollars and their ballots to maintain the status quo.