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Where do lead-tainted products end up? It's often not clear

This toy - made in China and coated with lead paint - was one of millions of toys recalled earlier this year by Mattel. This toy - made in China and coated with lead paint - was one of millions of toys recalled earlier this year by Mattel. (SCOTT OLSON/GETTY IMAGES/FILE 2007)

What has happened to the millions of toys, lunch boxes, and other products recalled recently because they contain hazardous levels of lead or lead paint?

No one is exactly sure. And that worries some consumer activists, environmentalists, and others.

Lead-laced products, they warn, could contaminate landfills or groundwater. Even worse, they say, is that some recalled toys and other goods get resold - in the United States and abroad.

"There are so many recalls right now, and nobody is saying, 'What's next?' " said Charlie Pizarro, of the Center for Environmental Health in Oakland, Calif. "There is no answer for how to dispose of them."

There is no single, nationally accepted procedure for dealing with such items.

The Consumer Product Safety Commission, the federal agency that oversees the recall of dangerous items, asks consumers to return the products to the companies, which are then bound by state laws regarding disposal of hazardous materials.

"You can't just throw it in the kitchen garbage can; there are regulations on disposal," spokeswoman Julie Vallese said. "The companies are well aware of state laws . . . they need to follow."

But Jamie Cameron-Harley, a spokeswoman for the California Integrated Waste Management Board, said she's mystified about the ultimate destination of lead-laced products - especially those returned to companies.

"Everyone says give them back to the manufacturer, but we don't know what the manufacturer does with it," she said.

Lead paint has been banned in the United States since 1978 because lead poisoning can cause brain and neurological problems, particularly in children.

According to experts, only a fraction of consumers actually return recalled products to manufacturers - mostly big-ticket items that would be expensive to replace. Mattel, which has issued dozens of recalls of toys in recent years, said that, historically, about 6 percent of recalled products are returned.

Several toy manufacturers were contacted for this article, but only Mattel would comment on its plans for returned lead-tainted products. The company said it was still evaluating how best to handle returned products from its recalls of 2.2 million toys possibly contaminated with lead paint.

RC2 Corp., the Illinois manufacturer that this year recalled more than 1.7 million Thomas & Friends wooden railway toys because of unsafe lead levels, said it had gotten back about 70 percent of the 1.5 million toys it recalled in June. It wouldn't say what it was doing with them.

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