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updated 9/20/2007 8:29:11 PM ET 2007-09-21T00:29:11

About 56,000 lunch boxes distributed by California in an effort to promote healthful eating may contain lead, and state officials Thursday urged consumers not to use them.

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Tests found elevated levels of lead in three of the boxes, which were made in China and given out at health fairs and other events, said officials of the state Department of Public Health. They carried a logo saying, “Eat fruits and vegetables and be active.”

“Certainly it’s unfortunate that an item we’re using to hopefully promote healthy behavior is then discovered to be a potential health hazard,” the department’s director, Mark Horton, told reporters in a conference call.

A test by the Sacramento County Health Department in July indicated the boxes contained lead, he said. Several weeks of more sophisticated testing confirmed the presence of lead “in multiple parts of the box,” including the logo, he said.

Asked why it took so long to issue a warning to the public, Horton said: “I think we took the appropriate steps based on the information available to us at the time.”

Lead can cause brain damage when ingested by young children. Horton urged parents whose children may have used the boxes to consult with a physician to see whether they should be tested.

The green canvas boxes were imported from China by T-A Creations Inc. of Los Angeles.

The only request for testing was for the linings, which were found to be lead-free, said company vice president Andrew Halim.

But Horton said the lining of the tested boxes also contained some lead.

An Associated Press investigation published in February revealed that government testing has shown high levels of lead in the vinyl lining of many children’s lunch boxes. Almost every lunch box found to contain lead was made in China, which has been under increasing international pressure to improve the quality of its exports after dangerous toxins were found in goods ranging from toys to toothpaste.

The California health department ordered the green boxes in July 2006 and made them available to schools, local health departments and community groups starting in November, Horton said.

The department was urging consumers not to use approximately 300,000 other lunch boxes distributed through the state over the past several years. Officials said they were running tests on some of those boxes to determine whether there was a health risk.

© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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