CEH Still Finding Lead in Women’s Handbags and Wallets

Women’s style magazines and designers’ ad campaigns have been heralding the “must-have” accessories of this fashion season: bright wallets, bold purses, and colorful clutches. Right now, the handbag sections of stores are packed with shades of lemon, lime, mustard, goldenrod, tangerine, apricot, orange peel, candy apple. Cute? Sure. Stylish? Perhaps. However, as CEH has discovered, with this fruit salad of fashion also comes an increase in risk of exposure to lead.

This week, ABC World News with Diane Sawyer and Good Morning America reported on this story and on CEH’s work. You can watch the videos here and here.

In 2009, CEH uncovered a toxic trend among many major handbag brands and retailers – high levels of lead in brightly colored fashion accessories made of faux leather and other synthetic materials, and particularly in shades of yellow, orange, red, and green.  Following our investigation, in 2010, CEH reached a landmark agreement with more than 40 fashion brands and retailers, setting a limit of no more than trace amounts (300 parts per million) of lead in most handbag materials. Since then, nearly 160 other brands and retailers have been added to the agreement.

This past February, just in time for the influx of colorful purses for the spring and summer fashion seasons, CEH launched our compliance testing project, in which we monitor brands and retailers for compliance with our legal agreements. As CEH’s fashion accessories Research Assistant, I’ve been busy visiting malls and purchasing suspicious purses and wallets, and then screening them for lead content.

Since the start of the project, we’ve visited 81 different stores and tested 289 purses and wallets. Of these, we found 43 items that contained high levels of lead, at 21 different retailers and of 30 different brands. Offending brands and retailers include big names like Bloomingdale’s, Nordstrom, Neiman Marcus, Tory Burch, Forever 21, Ralph Lauren, Nine West, BCBG Maxazria, Charlotte Russe, Guess, TJ Maxx, Ross, and We found lead levels found in these products ranging from 3 times to nearly 200 times higher than the agreed upon legal limit.

The toxic purses that we’ve found have come from a diversity of stores with different target customers. The item with the highest level of lead is a yellow patent leather wallet by Tory Burch, which I bought at Neiman Marcus for $195. The saleswoman, dressed in designer wear, had to unlock a glass display case for me to inspect the wallet. Before I paid for it, the saleswoman pointed out the abundance of interior pockets and the smooth zipper action, and explained how to best clean and take care of it.

At the other end of the spectrum, I’ve found lead-filled purses at the bottom of bargain bins, in stores where the teenage cashiers would look up from texting on their phones just long enough to tell me to keep all accessories at the register while looking around the store (presumably to prevent shoplifting), and to inform me of the storewide no-return policy.

Our compliance testing project has demonstrated a noticeable decrease in the prevalence of lead in handbags. Before the 2010 settlement, about 65% of purses that we tested had high levels of lead in them. Now, in the first few months of compliance testing, we’ve been finding that about 15% of purses tested have lead.

But 15% is still too many lead-tainted purses.  Lead exposure has been linked to increased rates of infertility in women and to impaired mental development in children, so purses with high levels of lead pose a particularly serious threat to the young women and mothers of young children who use them.  Lead exposure has also been linked to an array of other health problems, including increased risk of heart attacks, strokes, and high blood pressure.

While there is no way of knowing if a purse contains lead without testing it, there are steps you can take to minimize your risk of exposure. When shopping, avoid purses and wallets made of synthetic materials like faux leather, and opt instead for natural materials like canvas or cotton. Especially avoid brightly colored yellow, orange, red, and green faux leather products. If you already own a purse that you suspect might have lead in it, keep it away from small children and be sure to wash your hands thoroughly after touching it. Lastly, CEH is happy to test your wallets and purses for lead, at no charge. Just mail it in and be sure to include return postage so we can send the item back to you. Alternatively, if you live in the Bay Area, you can call us to schedule a drop-in testing appointment.