Children delight in jumping in bounce houses, but an environmental watchdog group was dismayed at finding high levels of lead in the extremely popular inflatable play structures.
The Center for Environmental Health in Oakland rented 28 bounce houses earlier this year and all but one had levels of the toxic metal exceeding state or federal limits, said Charles Margulis, a spokesman for the organization. Its tests showed that some of the vinyl that gives the inflatable structures their bounce had lead levels up to 70 times the federal limits.
The group's tests prompted state Attorney General Jerry Brown last week to sue nine bounce house manufacturers and rental companies -- including two based in the East Bay. The suit aims to halt the manufacture and sale of jump houses with excess lead and to require rental companies to post consumer warnings.
"Kids at birthday parties can spend hours playing in bounce houses," Brown said in a statement. "The goal of our lawsuit is to eliminate any chance they will be exposed to lead while they're jumping around having a good time."
For one mother, the head of an Alameda environmental advocacy group, the discovery of high lead levels in jump houses was yet another frustration at finding toxic substances in common children's products.
"We parents can't police all of the places our children visit looking for invisible health hazards. This problem needs to be solved -- and soon," said Mary Brune, co-founder and director of MOMS, a national grass roots movement of mothers and others working to eliminate toxic chemicals in the environment. The "leady" jump houses are the latest in a long list of products the Center for Environmental Health's testing campaigns have found that pose significant health hazards to children.
Armed with X-ray fluorescence analyzers and simple wipe tests, researchers at the group, over the past decade, have found lead far in excess of allowable amounts in children's lunch bags, raincoats, jewelry, toys and baby bibs. Other tests found lead in candy from Mexico and certain anti-diarrheal medicines, as well as in artificial turf.
Through the use of legal actions citing violations of California's Proposition 65, which sets strict state standards for allowable exposures to a list of toxic substances, the nonprofit group has pressured companies to either stop importing tainted products or to reformulate their own.
The group has focused mostly on lead-tainted products, as lead is a potent poison. It enters the body by being inhaled, swallowed or absorbed through the skin, after which it enters the bloodstream. About half of the lead entering the body is eliminated, but what remains is stored in bones and gradually released back into the bloodstream. Lead easily crosses the placenta in a pregnant woman and can harm the fetus. Children are particularly susceptible to adverse health effects from lead, which can affect their mental and physical growth.
While the attorney general's lawsuit proceeds, the Center for Environmental Health plans to continue testing bounce houses for excessive lead.
Margulis said the problem is largely confined to models manufactured before 2008. Newer ones are manufactured under the 2008 Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act, which sets strict limits on lead levels in products designed for use by children aged 12 and under.
Margulis said some rental companies say they take their bounce houses out of circulation after a few years, so have little old product in stock, but he was skeptical of that position.
"We haven't found that," he said. "You're going to work those things to the ground. You're going to patch them and put tape over them and keep them going as long as you can."
Three of the defendants named in the suit, Bay Area Jump in Hayward, Jump for Fun, Inc. in Union City, and Cutting Edge Creations in Minnesota, didn't have representatives available to comment.
In a statement on its website, Bay Area Jump said it immediately removed from its inventory the only one of its bounce houses -- a "Big Foot" monster truck -- that was found to include high levels of lead. All other jumps are less than four years old, the statement said, and are "lead free or way below the acceptable levels of lead."
The other companies named in the suit are Funtastic Factory (known as einflatables.com), Magic Jump, Leisure Activities Co., Thrillworks, the Inflatable Store and Jump for Fun National Inc.
In the past, critics have said the Center for Environmental Health's work prompted the passage of regulations so onerous to small business that it harmed their economic prospects. The center's testing data, for example, contributed to the enactment of the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act. But its implementation was delayed and exceptions crafted after regulators heard from alarmed owners of small firms, such as home-based toy-makers and small retail shops, saying the rules would put them out of business.
In the case of the bounce house suit, Margulis said the target was larger businesses.
The attorney general's lawsuit "didn't sue any small Mom-and-Pop rental companies," Margulis said. "All are manufacturers except for one, which is the largest rental company in the Bay Area."
For parents concerned their child may be at risk every time they attend a classmate's birthday party, Margulis said there are ways to reduce exposure. Having children wear socks while using a bounce house and thoroughly washing their hands and faces afterward, particularly before they eat, will reduce much of the exposure, he said. He did the same recently when his two children, aged 4 and 9, wanted to play in a bounce house.
"I had a choice of letting them not play and face crying kids all day or letting them play and wash their faces and hands afterward," he said.
Suzanne Bohan covers science. Contact her at 510-262-2789. Follow her at Twitter.com/suzbohan.