I have a set of LEGO bricks from Denmark and they were made in the late 1960's; should I be concerned about my son playing with them because of any danger of lead, cadmium, or other substances in the product?
No, you should not be concerned about lead. LEGO has always used lead-free colors in their elements, even back in the beginning.
However, not all LEGO-compatible bricks are lead free. For example, Mega Bloks, which are made in China, suffered from the poor quality control that led to massive recalls over lead-tainted products a few years ago.
David Clerk, the magazine's publisher and the executive director of Les Editions Protégez-Vous, said that after consulting with Health Canada, the magazine hired an independent lab in Quebec to perform what he called a "total lead test" on 32 toys, including the Maxi blocks.
Essentially, the process involves scraping off a sample of the toy's plastic, dissolving it in acid and then analyzing the solution.
When the results were returned by a lab, which Clerk said he could not identify because of a confidentiality agreement, a yellow Maxi block was the only toy that exceeded the 600-parts-per-million limit for lead set by Canada and the United States. Blue and red Maxi blocks showed no lead at all.
For confirmation, the magazine tested a second yellow block. It contained 1,180 parts per million of lead, nearly double the initial result.
While this question was asked in 2012, in late 2018 there was a flurry of inflammatory headlines and blog posts on the topic. The origin of these is a January 2018 study “Concentrations and Migratabilities of Hazardous Elements in Second-Hand Children’s Plastic toys”, in the scientific journal Environmental Science & Technology, by Andrew Turner, open access. The author also gave a needlessly provocative (in my view) quote to the BBC: “Lego bricks from the 70s and 80s are the big fail”.
The study compared a couple dozen vintage plastic toys to modern European safety standards for nine hazardous elements, including lead and cadmium. Among other things, it found that a few colors of LEGO bricks exceeded modern standards for cadmium (but not lead). The key findings are in Table 3 on page 4 of the PDF. So then the question becomes: is this a genuine safety concern?
The specific standard in question is related to swallowing: “ingestion of a small quantity of material and defined by 2 [hour] extraction under simulated gastric conditions”. Being hard plastic, LEGOs fall under the “scraped-off” standard (as opposed to “brittle, powder, pliable” or “liquid, sticky”) of 23 micrograms cadmium per gram of LEGO (µg/g) (Table 1).
The worst-scoring LEGOs were red bricks from “sets that appear to have been purchased in the 1970s”. These had 274 µg/g of cadmium, about 12× the limit.
My own view as a layperson (scientist in a different field) is that this is not a significant health concern for LEGOs, for two reasons. First, safety standards are appropriately quite conservative, so consuming a small number of bricks I would guess is not a problem. More importantly, however, consuming LEGO bricks presents far more serious mechanical risks (choking, intestinal damage, etc.).
DUPLOs may be a little different since their audience is definitely the chew-on-stuff crowd. However, it seems the risk is swallowing material rather than licking the blocks, so any child scraping off a non-trivial amount of material with their teeth also risks breaking off and swallowing larger fragments, again putting us into mechanical territory.
Bottom line in my view, don’t eat your LEGOs and don’t let your kids eat them, but the reason is not cadmium.
(Quotations from the study unless otherwise specified.)
Wrong. Lego had lead in its bricks up to 1984. The probability of finding lead in Lego bricks exponentially over the years, but there was still a small probability of finding lead in the early 1980s.
Here is one article that covers the topic.