Over the weekend, Vermont Public Radio issued a statement to its members and the media that "a listener" had discovered lead in the ink on the outside of one of its mugs — specifically this cheerful version, designed by Vermont artist Vikki Day, that was given to donors in 2011 for their contributions.
The situation has evolved quickly since then — yesterday the station announced it has tested older mugs going back to 2002 and found that they contain lead on the outside, as well. VPR has been diligently reporting the discoveries and the steps the station's managers have taken to address them both online and on air.
What did not move quickly was our ability to get confirmation from an authoratative outside source to explain the test results VPR has posted and, perhaps more importantly, to tell us what it all means. Is this a big deal or not?
Finally, today, we reached Lori Cragin, a state epidemiologist for environmental health at the VDH. Her unsatisfying answer: We still don't know.
Lead is a toxic heavy metal that, when ingested, replaces calcium in the body, which can result in serious neurological problems. When it comes to lead poisoning, children and pregnant women are at the highest risk. If absorbed by a fetus, lead can cause intellectual impairment and other serious health issues.
As Cragin explained, most of the lead issues in Vermont are a result of traces of lead paint in the state's aging housing stock, and to a lesser extent, lead contained in soil and in some children's toys. The state's lead-poisoning prevention efforts focus on mitigating those hazards. In other words, Vermont's labs aren't set up to deal with dishware — they don't test for leachability, which is why VPR has sent its mugs out of state for testing.
The health department found that the outer rim of the 2011 VPR cup contained 3.18 percent lead. That greatly exceeds the level considered safe for children, .01 percent. And, as Cragin says, "There is no safe level of lead in the body." But unless that lead is leaching out, it's not affecting users of those mugs. We'll know more when the test results come in, says Cragin.
However, the health department's tests have raised questions about whether a state law protecting children from lead exposure is applicable to the VPR mugs. According to Cragin, if a product is higher than .01 percent lead and it's a product marketed to children, it's unacceptable. VPR has announced that the Vermont Attorney General's office is looking into whether the law applies.
VPR marketing and communications director Michelle Jeffery Owens said that "about 1000" of these mugs were sent out to donors during the October 2011 pledge drive. In addition, others may have received the mug since then as a special gift from a VPR staffer.
Owens stressed in an email that no artist's work is related to the inking. Though the ceramic mugs are made in China, the art is imprinted by Tennessee-based World Wide Line. The company has guaranteed VPR that its products meet Food and Drug Administration standards for dishware, said the station's Saturday release.
Mugs issued since January 2012 are not affected — World Wide Line has used organic-based inks since then, said VPR, though that is not specifically noted on the vendor's website.
Oh, and just who was the listener who happened to be testing ceramic mugs for lead? Larry Crist, a regional executive at the Red Cross who "was interested in having lead levels tested in mugs purchased by his organization," according to reporter Steve Zind's article on the VPR website. Crist decided to have the VPR mug tested, as well, because he was concerned that it was made in China.
Reached at the Red Cross' Burlington office via email, Crist responded that he is sensitive to the matter because he used to work for a state government division that oversaw the lead program. He has done similar testing on "a new line of water bottles relative to bpa," he added, referring to a carbon-based synthetic compound used in many plastics.
Crist is of the better-safe-than-sorry school, saying that he has "generally preferred to follow the standard that offers the greatest level of protection when and wherever possible."
Stay tuned for more mug news. VPR is posting updates as it has them on its blog.