Why Do They Put Lead Paint in Toys?

It’s bright, cheap, and lasts forever.

Toy manufacturer Mattel recalled nearly 19 million Chinese-made toys Tuesday, including 436,000 toy cars containing lead paint. That was only two weeks after yanking nearly a million of its Fisher-Price toys for preschoolers because of lead content. Why would a toymaker ever use lead paint?

Because it’s bright, durable, flexible, fast-drying, and cheap. Paint manufacturers mix in different lead compounds depending on the color of the paint. Lead chromates, for example, can enhance a yellow or orange hue. Municipal workers often use lead paint because it resists the color-dimming effects of ultraviolet light: The double yellow line in the middle of the road? That’s loaded with lead. Paint manufacturers also add lead and other heavy metals to make paint stick better instead of flaking off. Price is also a factor: China mass-produces the stuff, and coloring agents like lead chromate are generally cheaper than organic pigments. (That said, added lead used to be a luxury. A house painter in the early 20th century would show up to a job with two buckets—one for the paint substrate, one for the lead powder. The more lead he added, the better the paint, the higher the price.)

Lead paint has other qualities that make it attractive to manufacturers. For one thing, it resists mildew, making it perfect for wood furniture and other surfaces likely to get wet. It’s also anti-corrosive: Ship makers have historically applied a coating of lead paint, often containing the red mineral litharge, to the bottom of metal ships’ hulls. (The Romans used lead paint, too—that’s why the paint on some of their ruins is so well-preserved.)

But for all its utility, lead is dangerous even in small quantities. In 1978, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission made it illegal to use any paint containing more than 0.06 percent lead for residential structures, hospitals, and children’s products. But it’s still widely used on bridges, tanks, towers, heavy equipment, parking lots, road signs, and other large-scale projects. There’s still lead in most consumer paints, too—just much, much less. Many paint manufacturers now use safer alternatives like zinc, although it doesn’t quite match lead’s luster or strength. *

People have known about lead’s harmful effects for centuries. Benjamin Franklin once wrote a letter about the “bad Effects of Lead taken inwardly,” and some 19th-century paint companies ran newspaper ads bragging about their lead-free paint. President George H.W. Bush’s dog, Millie, attracted national attention to the dangers of lead poisoning in 1992, when she got sick from breathing lead dust during White House renovations. In 2006, the state of Rhode Island won a lawsuit against three major paint companies, which were ordered to clean up 300,000 contaminated homes.

Got a question about today’s news? Ask the Explainer.

Explainer thanks Richard Baker of Baker Environmental Consulting and Angelo Caparelli of Adviron.

Correction, Aug. 16, 2007:This article originally stated that bromide is a metal used in paint. It is actually an ion of bromine, which is a halogen, not a metal. (Return to the corrected sentence.)

Correction, Aug. 24, 2007: The original version of this article included a photograph of Batman toys manufactured by Mattel. The company did recall some Batman toys, but not because they contained lead paint.