Tests on more than 1,200 children's products, most of them still on store shelves, found that 35 percent contain lead -- many with levels far above the federal recall standard used for lead paint.
A Hannah Montana card game case, a Go Diego Go! backpack and Circo brand shoes were among the items with excessive lead levels in the tests performed by a coalition of environmental health groups across the country.
Only 20 percent of the toys and other products had no trace of lead or harmful chemicals, according to the results being released Wednesday by the Michigan-based Ecology Center along with the national Center for Health, Environment and Justice and groups in eight other states.
Of the 1,268 items tested, 23 were among millions of toys recalled this year.
Mattel Inc. recalled more than 21 million Chinese-made toys on fears they were tainted with lead paint and tiny magnets that children could accidentally swallow. Mattel's own tests on the toys found that they had lead levels up to 200 times the accepted limit.
The Consumer Action Guide to Toxic Chemicals in Toys, which is available to the public at http://www.healthytoys.org, shows how the commonly purchased children's products rank in terms of containing lead, cadmium, arsenic and other harmful chemicals. It comes in time for holiday shopping -- and amid the slew of recalls.
"This is not about alarming parents," said Tracey Easthope, director of the Ecology Center's Environmental Health Project. "We're just trying to give people information because they haven't had very much except these recall lists."
Easthope said 17 percent of the children's products tested had levels of lead above the 600 parts per million federal standard that would trigger a recall of lead paint. Jewelry products were the most likely to contain the high levels of lead, the center said, with 33.5 percent containing levels above 600 ppm. Among the toys that tested above that limit was a Hannah Montana Pop Star Card Game, whose case tested at 3,056 ppm.
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends a level of 40 ppm of lead as the maximum that should be allowed in children's products. Lead poisoning can cause irreversible learning disabilities and behavioral problems and, at very high levels, seizures, coma, and even death.
A spokeswoman for New York-based Cardinal Industries Inc., which sells the Hannah Montana game, said Tuesday that Cardinal was unaware of the environmental groups' tests or procedures but the product has passed internal tests.
"We test every (product) before it ships numerous times," Bonnie Canner said. "We have not tested this product high for lead."
Easthope said the product is manufactured in China. Canner declined further comment until she had more information.
The center and its testing partners found The First Years brand First Keys, Fisher-Price's Rock-a-Stack and B.R. Bruin's Stacking Cups were among the 20 percent that contained none of the nine chemicals.
"There's a lot of doom and gloom about lead in the products -- people only hear about the recalls," said Jeff Gearhart, the Ecology Center's campaign director. "Companies can make clean products. Our sampling shows that there's no reason to put lead in a product."
Gearhart and Easthope said the products, while not necessarily representative of everything on the market, were considered among those commonly bought and used. Testers purchased most at major retailers such as Wal-Mart, Toys "R" Us and Babies "R" Us.
The testing began in 2006 but most of the items were checked in the past six months, Gearhart said.
Calls to a Mattel spokeswoman were not immediately returned Tuesday. A Wal-Mart Stores Inc. spokeswoman declined to comment because the company had not seen the report.
Toys "R" Us Inc. spokeswoman Kathleen Waugh also declined to comment because she needed to fully review the report's findings, referring questions to the Toy Industry Association.
Joan Lawrence, the association's vice president of standards and safety, said the group and its members support limiting accessible lead in children's products. But she said the industry and standard-setting bodies are struggling with how to measure exposure, accessibility and what limits to set.
She said she hasn't seen all of the Ecology Center's findings but called them misleading because the testers did not appear to follow recognized test procedures for lead and other substances. The two most common ways are to use solutions to simulate saliva and digestion, and another to attempt to dissolve the surface coating.
The center and its testing partners performed what they describe as a "screening" of chemicals using a handheld X-ray fluorescence device that detects surface chemical elements.
"The mere presence of any substance alone is only half of the answer -- you need to know if it's accessible to the child," Lawrence said. "We can't tell that from what I know of the tests that have been done by this group."
Easthope said her group's tests aren't meant to replace those tests, and that's noted on the Web site. She said it's important for people to know what's in these products since nobody else is providing this data.
"We're not saying that ... all of it will come out into a child," she said. "We're saying it's a concern that so much of these products have these chemicals of concern in them.
"We shouldn't have lead in kids' products. We can make products without lead in them."
U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission spokesman Scott Wolfson said he also hasn't seen the Ecology Center's tests but said the federal agency would seek to verify its findings and initiate recalls if warranted.
He said the commission has been meeting with ASTM International, which spearheads voluntary safety standards for toys, to discuss crafting standards specific to lead in plastics. He said there also is movement on Capitol Hill to revise laws on lead in children's products.
Wolfson said the commission launched 40 toy recalls in fiscal year 2006, three involving lead-paint violations. In 2007, there were 61 recalls, 19 involving lead-paint violations.
"What we would like to consumers to know is more recalls are on the way," he said.