Cambodia’s markets are likely littered with lead-laden necklaces and toys coated in mercury-laced paint, according to a new study by a Phnom Penh-based Canadian scientist.
Over 35 percent of toys and jewelry tested in the study exceeded E.U. guidelines for heavy metals, with some jewelry clasps exceeding the maximum recommended concentrations of lead 5,000 times, said Thomas Murphy, a retired government scientist from Environment and Climate Change Canada who led the research.
“It was quite a surprise,” Mr. Murphy said.
In a child’s mouth, the products “can kick up enough lead to impair their mental development.”
The study, published last month by the Journal of Health and Pollution, a New York-based research quarterly, included the testing for toxic metals of 89 pieces of jewelry and 71 toys purchased from markets around Phnom Penh. Most items cost less than $5.
Nearly 20 percent of the tested jewelry exceeded the E.U.’s recommended thresholds for lead, the study says, and 10 of the pieces pushed past recommended levels by a staggering 100 times the standard.
Though the study’s authors did not attempt to track down the origins of the products, the research notes that manufacturers often source metals from “recycling facilities for lead batteries and electronic wastes.”
Toys sampled in the study fared little better, with a quarter of the products flunking E.U. guidelines on mercury. The flaking paint in two toy cars contained mercury, nickel and lead in excess of 100 times the E.U. standards.
Even small amounts of lead exposure have been linked to behavioral problems, stunted intellectual growth, kidney damage and anemia in children, while mercury’s risks include birth defects and damage to the immune and digestive systems.
Though lead has been banned from paints in much of the West, past studies by Mr. Murphy and his colleagues have shown that 90 percent of enamel paints sold in Cambodia exceeded even neighboring Thailand’s more lenient standards.
Ministry of Health spokesman Ly Sovann said on Wednesday that the ministry had a facility to test cosmetics, but did not yet test toys or paints.
Cambodia’s tainted jewelry drew the attention of U.S. health authorities in 2009, when a 1-year-old boy of Cambodian parents fell ill in the U.S. with extreme levels of lead poisoning. The child recovered when doctors removed his metal-beaded amulet that had been purchased at a rural Cambodian market, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Mr. Murphy, who also formerly taught at the University of Health Sciences in Phnom Penh, said on Wednesday that the tests included items purchased for his son.
“These things are currently found everywhere,” including in Western countries, he said. “But there’s more enforcement in the U.S.”
Even there, “the best the U.S. can do is suppress the commonness of the jewelry” by conducting regular customs inspections and testing—a difficult task for Cambodia, Mr. Murphy said.
Manufacturers from developed countries often set up shop in countries with low standards or lax enforcement, according to Mr. Murphy, while counterfeiters use shoddy materials to dupe consumers.
“People do anything to make money,” he said.