Danger Unlocked—Keys found to leave behind unsafe amounts of lead
By Caitlin Rother Staff Writer San Diego Union-Tribune
12-1999 or 1/2000

So you thought you were safe after getting rid of your lead pipes and lead paint. According to the latest public health warning, now you have to watch yourself and your children around keys. The warning,  which came in state Attorney General Bill Lockyer’s lawsuit this week against 13 manufacturers of brass keys, has some parents in San Diego concerned and confused.  Lockyer’s office found that when the keys are used as intended—held in the hands for 15 seconds while unlocking something—lead in the keys is deposited on the fingers at amounts well above the safe level. Proposition 65, the state measure adopted in 1986 that requires public notice about toxic materials, limits exposure to .5 micrograms a day. Lauri Bollinger, a health-conscious parent in El Cajon, said that after the state’s warning she realized she should not have let her toddler chew on her key ring. But Bollinger does not know what to do with all of her brass keys, each of which contains about 2 percent lead. Similarly, retailers and key manufacturers were left scratching their heads about what to do with this common item that has been around for years with no apparent ill effect on people.

Toxicologists say children under 6 are more vulnerable than adults to lead poisoning, which can cause a decrease in intelligence, clumsiness, a loss of appetite and sleep, and abdominal cramps. And every parent knows that children like to put things in their mouths. Lead poisoning can be treated with medication. After learning about the lawsuit, Bollinger, 35, grew more worried when her keys registered in the dangerous level on her home lead tester. Lockyer said some keys leave lead on hands at a level that is up to 80 times above the .5 microgram per-day limit, while the average level detected on hands was about 19 times above the “no significant risk level.”  “My house keys and my car keys that I use every day tested positive,” Bollinger said. “I’d like to figure out how to get nonleaded keys.”

Master Lock Co., one of the manufacturers named in the lawsuit Lockyer filed Tuesday, does not know what it is supposed to do any more than Bollinger does. “We’re waiting for the other shoe to drop,” said Master Lock spokesman Todd Robert Murphy. “ I mean, what’s (Lockyer) want?” The lawsuit asks the court for injunctions to prevent the manufacturers from exposing California residents to lead in keys “without first providing clear and reasonable warning,” and to pay the costs of bringing the suit. Murphy said the lawsuit came as a total surprise because Master Lock never has received a complaint from any parent whose child got sick after using keys as a teething ring. “How much damage is actually being done?” he said. “ Who is actually being hurt by these products?”

Some car keys are made of stainless steel and contain only trace amounts of lead. But most keys on the market are made of brass because they are more durable and are less likely to break off in a lock. The lead makes the brass easier to cut. Small retailers such as San Diego Hardware and big chains such as The Home Depot say they use brass key-cutting equipment and make copies using only brass keys. Company representatives of both stores said their key cutters do not wear gloves because it would be too difficult to do the work.  Like Murphy, Bill Haynsworth, an owner of San Diego Hardware, voiced some skepticism about the potential hazards of lead in keys. “I kind of felt as though there’s possible carcinogens in everything you touch in this world,” Haynsworth said. “ Maybe it’s a really bad thing, but at this point, I tend to shrug it off as kind of premature to say that keys have a dangerous amount of lead in them until they do studies that back that up.”

What should people do in the meantime? “Don’t ask me,” Haynsworth said. “ I have no idea.”  State health officials suggest that consumers do what Bollinger did—check lead levels with home detection kits, which can be purchases at many home improvement and hardware stores. People also can contact manufacturers for more specific information on key composition. Poison control officials and lead experts said this was the first time they had heard about the potential hazards of lead in keys. Sandra Michioku, a Loakyer spokeswoman, said the intent of the lawsuit is to make consumers aware that keys can be a source of lead exposure.

Health officials also suggest that, like Bollinger, concerned parents contact their doctors and ask for a blood lead test. They recommend that people thoroughly wash their hands after handling keys, particularly before preparing food, eating, smoking, applying makeup or engaging in activities that bring the hands near the face or mouth. They warn parents not to let small children put keys in their mouths and to tell older children to wash their hands after playing with keys. Consumers can reduce contact with the lead in keys by placing plastic or rubber covers over the heads.