ST. PETERSBURG — As the pet toy buyer for the Big Lots chain, Sherry Biesinger likes to say she stocks the discount store's shelves only with items she'd give her four Labradors.
So she was frustrated when she learned that at least two pet products tested by a New Jersey lab for the St. Petersburg Times revealed high levels of lead.
"I swear to you that I care about what I buy and put in the stores," said Biesinger, 44. "But without any governing jurisdiction over these types of items for pets, everybody's on their own until something is done about it."
In the past year, the Consumer Products Safety Commission has recalled millions of toys — many made in China — because they contained too much lead. But the agency doesn't regulate lead in pet products.
The Times screened two dozen pet toys and products for lead content. The items were randomly bought at a variety of stores, including Kmart, Wal-Mart, PetSmart, Animal House, Big Lots and Bargain Basement. The Times then sent a handful of the toys to EMSL Analytical of Westmont, N.J., for testing.
Most of the toys had minimal or no amounts of lead.
But two products — representing more than 100,000 manufactured items — contained high levels of lead. While there are no requirements for pet toys, federal law mandates that children's toys contain less than 600 parts per million of lead paint.
Lab results on a pink enamel skull and crossbones dog charm bought at a local Big Lots showed it had 15,000 parts per million of lead paint, which could be dangerous if swallowed by an animal or a child.
It was sold by SimplyShe, a national pet products company in San Francisco recently featured on national TV for its popular line of chic dog products.
After the Times inquiry, the company asked retailers, including Big Lots, to voluntarily pull the remainder of 90,000 dog collar charms from store shelves. The company is trying to find a way to replace charms that have been bought.
Dave Hyams, a spokesman for SimplyShe, said he did not know how the charms made it through the company's random lead testing process.
"We're taking aggressive action to recover all the items in question and to make sure they're removed from shelves," Hyams said. "We're committed to resolving this issue quickly."
A Pets First flying disc also tested at 3,100 parts per million.
Mark Kemplar, president of Pets First Co. in Brooklyn, N.Y., said the company no longer stocks the disc, which features characters from Nickelodeon's Rugrats.
"This was a small, isolated something, I guess," Kemplar said. "We didn't do this ourselves. We bought it from someone. Our stuff is all tested for everything, including lead. We have labs in China that perform the testing."
Hyams said SimplyShe's dog charms came in three different patterns: the skull and crossbones, a dog paw and a bone. All were made with enamel by the same Chinese manufacturer in February and March of 2007. But the company didn't like the charms' look and they have not used that manufacturer for anything since, Hyams said.
He said no other SimplyShe products have lead.
SimplyShe, which sells about 42,000 pet products a day, negotiated a deal last year with Wal-Mart to carry its pet products, but the store has never sold the lead-tainted charms, Hyams said.
Big Lots pulled the remaining charms it had — about 4,000 — and 680 of the flying discs late last week, said Biesenger, the pet buyer. The store has sold more than 14,000 of the flying discs nationwide.
Biesenger said she now will ask manufacturers and distributors for documentation about lead content in pet toys.
"I would love to see the (Consumer Products Safety Commission) put in some standards," she said. "It would only make it better for everyone. For people like me who don't have kids, these dogs are my kids."
Scott Wolfson, a spokesman for the Consumer Product Safety Commission, said the agency would have jurisdiction over pet toys only if a "consumer could be in harm's way because of a hazard associated with the pet toy."
Dogs and cats are not "consumers," Wolfson said.
There is debate about the effect of lead-tainted products on pets. Most vets agree that the smaller the pet, the more danger. A Port Charlotte couple lost their sun conure after the bird ingested lead from a pet toy.
But several veterinary toxicologists said they have not seen a dog or a cat die from lead ingested from a pet toy, and most animals get lead poisoning after digesting chips of lead paint or swallowing a fishing sinker.
Lead-poisoning symptoms in pets include stomach pain, lack of appetite, vomiting, diarrhea, blood in urine or feces, inability to sleep, abnormal behavior, weakness and convulsions.
But there is some concern lead-tainted pet products could pose a threat to children. A dog collar charm, for example, might be dangerous if swallowed, said Dr. David Bellinger, a Harvard Medical School neurology professor who has done lead studies in children.
In February 2006, a 4-year-old boy in Minnesota died after swallowing a heart-shaped charm full of lead that came with a pair of children's Reebok shoes.
Leonora LaPeter Anton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8640.