SACRAMENTO -- The state Public Health Department asked parents on Thursday to toss certain Chinese-made lunchboxes potentially containing dangerous levels of lead -- the same ones it distributed in a campaign to promote healthful eating.

After distributing more than 350,000 of the canvas lunchboxes, the Department of Public Health found that three in a batch of 56,000 contained "significant" levels of lead.

"It certainly is unfortunate that an item we're using to promote healthy behavior is discovered to be in itself to be a health hazard," said Mark Horton, the director of the Department of Public Health. "We will be reassessing our policy on the distribution of our promotional products."

Horton said he was using an "abundance of caution" in asking parents to discard all 350,000 lunchboxes.

But he didn't make the announcement to discard the lunchboxes until nearly two months after he was first notified in July by the Sacramento County Public Health Department that it found lead in the lunchboxes through a swab test.

When asked why he didn't notify the public earlier, Horton said proper steps were taken.

"The kind of material we were dealing with required sophisticated testing to determine if there was lead" and how much, he said. "And whether if contact with the lunchboxes would lead to lead exposure. It took several weeks to conduct the testing."

He said the department stopped ordering and distributing the lunchboxes in July and notified agencies that had received them -- though not parents.

"It wasn't until we got more confirmation tests," Horton said, "that we decided to take more aggressive action."

The lunchboxes were imported from China by Los Angeles-based T-A Creations, whose vice president, Andrew Halim, said its initial testing -- of only the bag's lining -- found no lead before they were sold to a second company, You Name It Promotions of Oakland, which sold them to the state.

The lunchboxes were given out at health fairs and other events to mainly low-income parents and carried a logo saying "eat fruits and vegetables and be active."

Consumer advocates said it's widely known that vinyl and canvas lunchboxes contain lead, and that an agency charged with protecting children's health should have been more vigilant.

"It's their mission to prevent illness in children," said Manju Kulkarni, staff attorney for the National Health Law, which works with the California Health Consumer Alliance, "but, instead, they're potentially poisoning them by distributing these lunch bags."

Reach Steven Harmon at 916-441-2101 or sharmon@bayraeanewsgroup.com.