Safety Alert: Boy’s Death Linked to Lead Bracelet, but Hazards Go Beyond Jewelry

ConsumerReports.org

The
death of a 4-year-old Minneapolis
boy who swallowed part of a heart-shaped Reebok charm bracelet in February and
died of lead poisoning is believed to be the first such fatality linked to toy
jewelry, according to the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC).

The death of Jarnell Brown was unusual, but the dangers of
lead poisoning from metal toy jewelry are alarmingly widespread.

Since 2003, the CPSC has issued 13 separate recalls involving
162 million inexpensive rings, necklaces, bracelets, and other baubles
containing excess levels of lead that can transfer from the object to a child's
hands and be ingested–what the CPSC calls "accessible lead." The CPSC
has documented at least one case of a child developing high blood lead levels
after swallowing or repeatedly sucking on jewelry items.

In a statement, Reebok said the company "is cooperating
fully with appropriate regulators, and working hard to fully understand what
happened, how it happened, why it happened and … how we can immediately take
steps to prevent it from happening again."

Denise Kaigler, Reebok's head of global public relations and
communications, said in a telephone interview that the bracelets had been
manufactured in a single plant in China.

Consumers Union has been
warning the public about the hazards of lead in products such as gasoline,
fruits, cocoa, and paint as far back as the first issue of Consumer Reports
in 1936. Studies have show that even low levels of lead can be dangerous. And
in a just-completed study, we found high amounts of lead lurking in other
sources, such as children's soft, insulated lunch boxes and holiday lights.

The dangers of lead

Lead poisoning in children is associated with behavioral
problems, learning disabilities, hearing problems, and growth retardation. A
child who swallows large amounts of lead may develop anemia, kidney damage,
colic, muscle weakness, and brain damage, which ultimately can kill the child.

If a child swallows smaller amounts, such as dust containing
lead from paint, much less immediate and severe but still damaging effects on
blood, development, and behavior may occur. At still lower levels of exposure,
lead can affect a child's mental and physical growth. Fetuses exposed to lead
in the womb because their mothers had a lot of lead in their bodies may be born
prematurely and have lower birth weights. Exposure in the womb, in infancy, or
in early childhood also may slow mental development and cause lower
intelligence later in childhood. There is evidence that those effects may
persist beyond childhood.

Because lead accumulates in the body, the only way to reduce
the risks is to minimize exposure.

What government is doing

Last year, the CPSC adopted an enforcement policy to reduce
the potential hazards from lead in children's jewelry by setting guidelines for
manufacturers, importers, and retailers, says Julie Vallese, the commission's
director of public affairs. The policy restricts allowable lead limits in
children's jewelry to trace amounts, and spells out breaches of the policy that
will trigger an investigation. Unfortunately, by the time a company is called
to account, hazardous products may have already made their way into the marketplace.

"When any death occurs, it's a tragedy," Vallese
said. "But as tragic as it is, the agency has been successful in pulling
jewelry off the market so the exact same scenario won't be repeated again and
again."

Lara Cushing, research director for the Center for
Environmental Health, a California-based non-profit advocacy organization, said
companies could easily eliminate lead from toy jewelry, but it's a business
decision that would cost money. Many of the cheap toys sell for less than $1
and are distributed via gumball machines.

In January, the Center for Environmental Health settled a
lawsuit it and others filed against 71 distributors and major retailers,
including Toys "R" Us, Target, Sears, and JC Penney. The settlement
created new standards for the amount of lead in toy jewelry–the same trace
amounts specified in the CPSC's policy–sold in the state of California. All such jewelry will have to
meet the new criteria by September 2007.

Holes in the system

For all the progress, however, dangerous products continue to
fall through the cracks. On March 24, the CPSC recalled 300,000 of the
8-inch-long, silver-colored Reebok charm bracelets such as the one that claimed
the life of Jarnell Brown. The bracelets were given away as promotional items
with the purchase of Reebok children's footwear between May 2004 and March
2006. The CPSC is advising parents to dispose of the bracelets. For
information, call Reebok at 800-994-6260 or visit www.reebok.com .

On the same day, there was a second toy-jewelry recall, this
one involving 580,000 rings and necklaces sold from September 2003 through
February 2006 at Dollar Tree, Dollar Bill$, Dollar Express, Greenbacks, Only
$1, and Super Dollar Tree stores. The recall includes products with the
following names (on the packaging): "Mood Necklace," Mood Ring,"
"Glow in the Dark Necklace," "Glow in the Dark Ring,"
"UV Necklace," and "UV Ring." The rings are silver in
color, are adjustable, and have one of several designs with a toy
"gem" in center. The necklaces have a black string with a
silver-colored clasp and silver charm, and a "gem" in the center. The
CPSC again is advising parents to take the jewelry away from the child and return
it to place of purchase for a refund. Consumers can call Dollar Tree Stores at
800-876-8077 or visit www.dollartree.com
for information.

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