Beware of lead, chemicals in Halloween costumes

Beware of lead, chemicals in Halloween costumes »Play Video
From princesses to pirates to scary monsters, kids everywhere are gearing up for Halloween. The costumes may be scary, but what's in some of the costumes may be even more frightening.

With the help of the Washington Toxics Coalition, I collected a variety of Halloween costumes and accessories from local stories, families, and online and tested them.

Washington Toxics Coalition staff scientist Erika Schreder checked the costumes with a widely accepted, handheld x-ray gun called XFR that detects toxic heavy metals and some chemical compounds.

In a plastic sword, we found traces of lead in the paint that registered at 66 parts per million -- well below the federal limit of 600 parts per million.

But University of Washington toxicologist Dr. Steve Gilbert said even small amounts of lead are a problem because kids absorb about 50 percent of all the lead that gets in their bodies, and it stays there.

"There's no reason to have lead in this product," he said of the sword. "No reason. Even if it is a small amount of lead, that might be absorbed, or that child's being exposed to. We just don't need to do that."

Lead is linked to impaired development, weakened brain function and reduced I.Q. In children.

Another product we tested was a painted wood child's rosary, which has a label guaranteeing that all the coloring is non-toxic. But the tests again showed lead.

"795 Parts per million," said Schreder. "That's an unacceptable amount of lead."

In a vinyl Halloween cape we purchased on eBay, we found PVC, Polyvinyl chloride -- often called the "poison plastic" because of chemical compounds called phthalates

Phthalates are controversial. They've been linked to illness and early puberty, although the plastics industry insists they're safe. But Dr. Gilbert and others maintain it's just one more toxin that children do not need to be exposed to.

"And they cause reproductive problems, particularly for males, young males," said Gilbert. "They effect testosterone levels."

The “Creepy Cape" had actually been recalled a year ago, not because of phthalates, but because contrary to what the label said, the vinyl is a high flammability hazard.

Despite repeated calls to ban phthalates in children's products, most states, including Washington, still allow them.

In a green monster mask clearly marked for kids as young as 3, our tests found PVC and a surprisingly high level of cadmium, a toxic heavy metal often used in color paints.

As with lead, even small amounts of cadmium accumulate in the body.

"I think the point is, it's a little bit here, a little bit there, a little bit all over the place,and sooner or later a little adds up to a lot," said Gilbert.

It's not easy to know what Halloween costumes are safe. Some of the products we tested turned up clean, but without testing you don't know, and you can't always trust the labels.

Rebecca Rockefeller bought a Snow White costume for her 5-year-old daughter and found that it had a warning label indicating that some of the colored decorations contained lead.

We tested the costume, and a costume medallion and tiara bearing similar lead warnings, with over-the-counter swab tests that turn pink or red if lead is present. But the tests indicated no lead.

"I don't think you can really trust anybody," Rockefeller said.

Dr. Gilbert said she's not being unreasonable.

"We should be able to trust the labels on our products," he said. "Trust that our products are safe, and we don't have that trust right now."

So what can you do?

Avoid costumes and masks made of soft plastics and vinyl, which often contain phthalates. And don’t let young kids wear or play with costume jewelry. Unfortunately a lot of costume jewelry on the market has high levels of lead, and without special, expensive equipment, there’s no way for a consumer to tell.

As for over-the-counter lead test kits, they’ve been found to be unrealiable.

Consumer Reports tested five home lead-testing kits and concluded that three of them were "useful though limited screening tools for consumers concerned about lead levels in the products in their homes," but the tests can often produce false positives and well as false negatives

Beyond that, contact your state and federal leaders to demand better controls and more standards in manufacturing and monitoring. Even when levels are relatively low, the acummulation of toxins can have a negative effect on children's health and development.

Toxicologists and child health experts insist there is no reason any toxin should be allowed in anything made for a child.

For more information:

For more information on lead test kit reliability:


For more information on the “Creepy Cape” Recall: