Getting the Lead Out of Jewelry (Los Angeles Times)

David Colker, Los Angeles Times

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The state has a law restricting lead, but parents should still take precautions.

In February 2006, a 4-year-old child changed the jewelry business.

The
little boy, brought to a Minneapolis hospital emergency room because of
vomiting and a stomachache, got steadily worse. After four days, he
died.

During an autopsy, a heart-shaped metal charm was found
in the stomach of the boy, whose identity wasn't revealed. The piece of
metal had the word Reebok printed on it.

The charm had come with a pair of children's sneakers. A test revealed it to be 99.1% lead.

Other
children have become sick from swallowing jewelry containing lead, and
many such products have been recalled. But this death helped ensure the
passage of laws in several states restricting lead content in
children's jewelry.

And as of March 1, lead content in jewelry meant for adults also will be regulated in California.

For the jewelry industry, it has been a major shift.

"Before
the time of Cleopatra, men and women wore jewelry, ornaments made of
metal with lead content," said Michael Gale, executive director of the
Fashion Jewelry Trade Assn.

Gale said metal containing lead has many advantages for jewelry makers, including pliability, low melting point and low cost.

Since
September, children's jewelry sold or manufactured in California can't
have lead content of more than 600 parts per million. Laws on the books
in Minnesota, Illinois and Michigan contain similar restrictions.

But the reach goes far beyond these states, becoming a de facto national standard.

"We're dealing with chains of stores that have nationwide distribution," Gale said. "If you have a J.C. Penney's warehouse in Texas, you can't separate out items to ship only to California and some other states."

But early compliance has been questionable, to say the least.

In
December, the California Department of Toxic Substances Control
announced that of 375 children's jewelry items bought by investigators
after the law took effect, more than a third exceeded the allowed lead
content — sometimes by a large amount.

A child's necklace
bought from a vending machine at a Church's Chicken restaurant in
Oakland had 368,000 parts per million of lead, more than 600 times the
legal limit.

Other errant items included a beaded safety pin bought at a GapKids store in Huntington Beach, a heart necklace from Macy's in Glendale and a "pirate bracelet" from a shop at Universal Studios.

None of the stores or suppliers was fined.

Maureen
Gorsen, director of the state agency, said the aim of the investigation
was to get retailers and manufacturers to follow the law. She compared
it with a driver getting a warning for a first-time infraction.

"You're not going to jail the first time you're caught speeding," Gorsen said.

But
the nonprofit Center for Environmental Health criticized the lack of
penalties, saying many of the companies caught up in the sting had been warned of lead problems with their merchandise.

In
2004, some of them were named in a lawsuit filed by the group under
Proposition 65, which deals with toxic substances. A settlement of the
suit helped lay the basis for the state law.

"Our hope was that
strong enforcement could be a motivating factor," said Charles
Margulis, spokesman for the Oakland-based group.

In the meantime, there are measures consumers can take to protect themselves.

One of them, unfortunately, is to spend more money.

"Items
on the higher end are made from materials that are sometimes safer,"
Margulis said, "like sterling silver, glass beads, crystal beads."

He also recommended looking for jewelry made of hard plastics designed to look like metal.

Items
that are questionable, no matter what the price, include dull metal
pieces, vinyl cords used in necklaces or bracelets (cloth and leather
cords are a better bet) and fake pearls with shiny coatings.

A lead-free label on an item is no guarantee; the group has found lead in products bearing the label.

You can test things yourself. Several kits are commercially available.

The Center for Environmental Health usually uses LeadCheck Swabs (www.leadcheck.com )
for items such as jewelry. The swabs blot chemicals onto things; the
presence of lead is indicated by color changes in the liquids.

A swab can be used only once, and they cost about $4 apiece — less if bought in bulk.

It's
not always easy to test these things. Sometimes the metal is covered
with plating or paint, which also may contain lead. The covering
probably would have to be scratched away for a good test. This could
mean defacing the item, especially if it's small, to the point where it
is no longer fun to wear.

"You don't want to test the item only to destroy it," Margulis said. "Sometimes, maybe you can find a spot on the back."

When in doubt, he said, throw it out, especially if it is small enough to swallow.

Margulis
was far from confident that the industry would police itself
effectively, even in the face of possible fines. "You'd be surprised
how these pieces of jewelry are marketed for kids," he said.

"One of the items we found came from a gum ball machine that said on it, 'Not for children under 3.'

"The child who died in Minnesota was 4."

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