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Nashville Scene Deadly Umbrellas

Walter Jowers tackles the horror of...umbrella poisoning?

By Walter Jowers

OCTOBER 13, 1997:  On Aug. 5, the U.S Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), in cooperation with Gymboree Corporation, announced the voluntary recall of 6,500 children's umbrellas. The problem, according to the CPSC, was "surface coating decorations with high levels of lead."

I haven't checked with the CPSC on this, but I figure that when they say "surface coating decorations," what they mean is paint--as in lead-based paint, which was supposed to have disappeared from the U.S. back in 1978. This is the same lead paint that gets house-shoppers an automatic government warning when they consider buying a pre-1978 house. Attention American home-buyers: There is lead on the wood trim and on the window sills. Flee!

Apparently, word of the deadly lead threat hasn't reached the faraway land where Gymboree gets its umbrellas painted. We'd better send over some giant C-130 transports and airdrop pamphlets on the umbrella factories. After all, it's the umbrella makers who're trapped in a high-lead environment all the livelong day.

This recall put me to wondering: Just how many children have been poisoned by their umbrellas? In my experience, children won't even pick up an umbrella unless you make 'em do it. They'd rather run through the rain and drip dry than have one extra piece of baggage to tote around. I figure the biggest problem with children and umbrellas would have to be mean little kids using umbrellas as swords or clubs--and their parents letting 'em get away with it.

According to the CPSC's press release, the lead-laced Gymboree umbrellas haven't made any children sick. They're recalling the umbrellas, they say, "to prevent the possibility of an illness."

That's a big job, and it's mighty thoughtful of the CPSC to take it on. But I'm here to tell you: Lead isn't an all-bad thing. For instance, back when we used lead paint on metal roofs and flashings, the paint bonded with the metal and defeated rust for decades, sometimes even centuries. When moonshiners used old lead-laced automobile radiators as condensers on their distilleries, people dropped dead or went blind from drinking moonshine. Result: fewer moonshine drinkers, and not much trouble out of the incorrigible moonshinaholics. Finally, lead is the one earthly substance that can protect Superman from the deadly rays of Kryptonite. So I'm generally in favor of lead.

If nobody got sick from the umbrellas, how did the CPSC learn they were tainted? I say we ought to take the highly detail-oriented people in charge of lead discovery and put 'em on a real national-security job, like keeping intestinal bacteria out of the vital hamburger supply.

Lead is only a problem when people eat it or inhale it. If a person absorbs enough lead into his blood, brain damage ensues. Children are particularly susceptible, because, compared to adults, they don't have much blood in 'em.

When it comes to lead paint, I've always stuck with this simple rule: Parents, don't let your children eat paint. Seems simple enough, but I actually had one person ask me, "How do you do that?"

Well, the same way you keep 'em from playing on the Interstate or sticking rocks up their nose. Strategies vary with parenting style. Personally, I start by setting a good example. I don't gnaw baseboards in front of children. Second, if I see a child looking at a baseboard like he's about to start gnawing, I get the child's attention, then do a little motivational speaking. So far, this has worked for me. Folks who feel the need to do more can always have their child's blood tested for excess lead.

Just so you'll know: The worrisome Gymboree umbrellas were sold in three styles: the kid-sized compact model, a golf umbrella, and a beach umbrella. All of 'em are multicolored with polka-dot, striped, and checkered panels alternating with solid color panels. The kid-size umbrellas have a picture of an evil, lead-purveying clown on the purple panel. Gymboree stores sold the umbrellas nationwide, from Sept. 1996 through May 1997, for about $12 to $30, depending on the model. If you've got one, you can take it back to a Gymboree store for a refund.

Personally, I'm going to run out and try to buy one. I'll put it in my collection of perfectly-OK recalled items, right next to Craig Jory, the hair-eating Cabbage Patch doll.

Visit Walter's Web site at http://www.nashscene.com>. Or e-mail him at walter.jowers@nashville.com

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