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Lead found in toy jewelry

Stores pull items from shelves after a state investigation and tests find they contain levels far above the legal limit.

December 13, 2007|Marc Lifsher, Leslie Earnest and Victoria Kim | Times Staff Writers

Stores across California have pulled lead-tainted children's jewelry from their shelves after state investigators found bracelets, rings and necklaces contaminated with as much as 600 times the legal limit of the poisonous element.

The discovery, coming after Mattel Inc. and other manufacturers of toys and novelty items recalled millions of lead-laced toys, bibs and lunchboxes made in China, rattled parents and retailers alike.

"I never thought it would go into jewelry," said Xochil Armenta, a Glassell Park mother of three who was shopping at Glendale Galleria on Wednesday with her 3-year-old daughter, Amanda. "I would never have thought, 'Does it have lead?' "

Hoping to get dangerous products off the market before they become Christmas stocking stuffers, the California Department of Toxic Substances Control ordered 11 retail outlets this week to remove more than a dozen types of jewelry for children, the agency said Wednesday.

All of the products had lead levels that outstripped the legal state limit of 600 parts per million.

"Lead in jewelry is a particular concern because children often place jewelry in their mouths," said Maureen Gorsen, director of the toxic substances agency.

State regulators said the jewelry action was just the first step in an enforcement campaign authorized by a new law, and added that there could be much more lead-tainted jewelry on store shelves.

Gorsen said her inspectors visited a cross-section of stores in California after the law took effect Sept. 1, buying 375 children's jewelry items.

About one-third of the items purchased had excessive levels of lead, the state agency said. It released a list of 15 lead-tainted items found at 11 stores in Los Angeles, Sacramento, Oakland, Glendale, San Francisco, Roseville and Chula Vista.

Shell Culp, a spokeswoman for the agency, said an agreement between state Atty. Gen. Jerry Brown and other companies whose products tested positive for excessive levels of lead prevented a full release of information about all stores that had been selling lead-tainted jewelry.

For the items that were disclosed, lead contents ranged from a low of 686 parts per million in a barrette-bracelet set at a Dollar Tree store in Rancho Cordova, a Sacramento suburb, to a high of 368,000 ppm in a necklace with pendant that was a prize in a gumball machine in a Church's Chicken eatery in Oakland.

In Southern California, inspectors said they purchased lead-laced bangles at three stores in the Glendale Galleria: Macy's, GapKids and Sanrio Surprises, best known for its "Hello Kitty" paraphernalia. The lead content in items at these stores ranged from 2,140 to 47,500 ppm.

Ingesting even minute amounts of lead can cause developmental defects and serious health problems, especially in children. The new state law bans the sale of children's jewelry with lead content of more than 600 parts per million.

Stela Rosas, shopping with her 4-year-old daughter at the Glendale mall Wednesday, was alarmed.

"What other things out there have it? We don't know," she said. "That's scary."

Regulators declined to say where the jewelry was manufactured. Industry experts said that most such items are made in China, India and Southeast Asian countries as well as in Mexico and Caribbean nations.

The state investigation was launched to enforce a California law banning unhealthful levels of lead in children's jewelry. The penalty for failing to comply with the law is $2,500 per individual item of jewelry sold per day.

Gorsen said the toxic substances agency would be looking next at distributors and manufacturers.

"The problem is much more pervasive than we would like to be seeing," she said. "We're going to be working up the supply chain to determine where they are coming from."

For companies and stores that cater to kids, Wednesday's events were more bad news.

As it is, "toy manufacturers are just screaming about business," said Britt Beemer, chairman of America's Research Group, which has interviewed about 5,500 consumers since early November to monitor the important holiday shopping season. He said toy sales were probably down 14% to 18% this season compared with the same period last year.

Parents are buying toys but are being more selective, he said, tending toward such items as video games and motorized cars. Bicycle sales, he said, "are going through the roof."

"The test is, what toys would my kids not chew on?" Beemer said.

Several retailers made public statements Wednesday. Gap Inc., for instance, said it pulled the necklaces -- chains with three-leaf pendants -- from stores across the country six weeks ago.

"We are absolutely committed to ensuring the safety of the products we are selling in our stores," a spokeswoman said.

Mark Luhn, who has operated Jeffrey's Toys in San Francisco for about three decades, said to his knowledge he had never stocked the Molly 'N Me necklaces that state regulators said they purchased at the store. But he said he pulled all children's necklaces anyway.

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