Fashion at a Very High Price  |  New York Times

By DEBORAH BLUM

From cheerful red handbags to festive green belts, colored accessories are often mandatory for the style-conscious during the holiday season. But what many fashionistas don’t know is that many of these products may be tainted with high levels of lead — and the brighter and shinier they are, the greater the risk.

Accessories in red, green, yellow and orange are more likely to be contaminated than those in darker or more muted colors, new tests show. Use of lead salts to create these brilliant hues — a practice that dates to the Middle Ages — is common in the manufacture of inexpensive vinyl and plastic products.

Why worry? Some experts fear the abundant lead in the colorful outer layer of these products may leave tiny, invisible particles on the hands of consumers, which may end up in food and drink. Further, people handle wallets and other accessories multiple times a day, accruing repeated exposures.

“Lead is a cumulative burden — we tend to store it very well,” said Dr. Bruce Lanphear, professor of health sciences at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver and an expert on lead contamination. Even at very low levels, it has been linked to nervous system damage, cardiovascular problems, kidney failure and many other health problems.

“There is no good level for lead exposure,” said David Rosner, co-director of the Center for the History and Ethics of Public Health at Columbia University and author of the 2013 book “Lead Wars.”

For the past three years, the Center for Environmental Health in Oakland, Calif., has been checking accessories sold at retail stores and online for lead contamination. Retailers agreed to the testing in a settlement following a 2010 lawsuit filed by the center regarding toxic metals in accessories.

That settlement sets a safety limit of 300 parts per million of lead in leather goods and 200 p.p.m. in vinyl products, which are prone to cracking. If a product contains lead above those levels, the retailer may pay a penalty of up to $10,000; the money goes into a fund that pays for further testing.

Generally, the news has been good: the center’s investigators have documented a steady reduction in lead contamination over all. The center found no violations of the lead standards this year at retailers like Target, H&M, Guess, and J. Crew.

Still, the center did find consistent lead contamination in purses, belts and shoes sold to budget-conscious teenagers and young women at other retailers. Some, including Wet Seal, Charlotte Russe and Forever 21, sold fashion accessories that contained more than 10,000 p.p.m. of lead or higher, according to Caroline Cox, the center’s research director. A pair of orange sandals tested by the center topped 25,000 p.p.m., for example, while a pair of red pumps registered above 30,000 p.p.m. Yellow belts approached 50,000 p.p.m.

Over the last 12 months, the center found that slightly more than half of 58 items from Wet Seal tested above the safety standard; nearly one-fourth of the items purchased at Charlotte Russe and Forever 21 also failed to meet lead limits.

“It’s frustrating that this continues to be a problem,” Ms. Cox said. “Especially when the fact that other companies can reduce contamination means we’re really just talking about quality control.”

A spokeswoman for Wet Seal declined to respond to questions about the test results on the record. Repeated calls and emails to Charlotte Russe were not answered.

In a prepared statement, Kristen Strickler, public relations and social media marketing manager at Forever 21, noted that the goods cited by the C.E.H. make up just a small fraction of the accessories sold by the retailer. “Upon identifying any non-conforming goods, Forever 21 voluntarily recalls these items immediately and takes appropriate punitive actions with the vendor, including termination, which has resulted in much fewer instances,” she said.

Brent Cleaveland, executive director of the Fashion Jewelry and Accessories Trade Association, said, “Nobody wants to contaminate customers, and nobody wants to sell poisoned products.” The lead limits set by the center are unfairly low and penalize companies seeking to provide low-cost accessories, he said.

Most of these products are made in China, he added, and intensive product testing would place a heavy burden on the businesses without necessarily protecting consumer health.

“The industry as a whole has been both concerned and responsible,” Mr. Cleaveland said, pointing out that the association has worked to establish protective measures for products like children’s jewelry.

The most important question is whether accessories pose a measurable risk, he said, and on that point he remains unconvinced: “It’s a gross exaggeration to suggest that the lead you get on your fingers from handling a wallet is a health problem.”

Ms. Cox acknowledged that it’s uncertain how much exposure an individual might receive from handling accessories. But she said tests in which tissues are swiped across even brand-new products show that trace amounts of lead are transferred with each touch. Because people tend to touch purses and wallets repeatedly, these exposures could add up. “It just makes sense to reduce levels as much as possible,” she said.

The center is focusing on products that are marketed to younger women because lead tends to accumulate in bones and can be released during pregnancy, she said, with the potential to harm both mother and fetus.

There’s an additional benefit to lowering lead levels in these products, she added. Such actions also help to protect factory workers, who undoubtedly receive much higher lead exposure exposures than consumers.

Advocates and manufacturers do agree that educated consumers are increasingly likely to choose, even demand, untainted accessories.“If you buy products that are not contaminated, there’s undoubtedly an extra cost,” Dr. Lanphear said. “But there are much larger benefits.”

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