Suzanne Bohan, Oakland Tribune

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Get the lead out – of jewelry?

On March 1, a law takes effect tightly regulating levels of lead in
adult jewelry sold in California. The new rule follows a law enacted
Sept. 1 with even tighter restrictions on lead levels in children's

Once it takes effect, anyone selling jewelry with more than
just trace amounts of lead in surface coatings or plastic and rubber
components risks racking up hefty penalties until they clear their
shelves of offending products.

Exposure to lead can cause health effects ranging from
behavioral problems and learning disabilities to organ failure and
death. While lead exposure can harm adults, children under the age of 6
are especially susceptible, as their brains are still developing.

California's new law "became a de facto national standard,"
said Michael Gale, executive director of the Fashion Jewelry Trade
Association in Rhode Island. The trade association formed in 2006 to
address the growing industry crisis of excess lead in jewelry, which
has prom-pted more than 30 federal recalls of jewelry for children and
teenagers since 2005.

California's standards inspired the passage of similar
legislation in Michigan, Illinois and Minnesota, and comparable laws in
New York and Indiana are pending, Gale said.

"We are absolutely in compliance with the California
legislation," said Marisa Jacobs, vice president of investor relations
for Claire's Stores, speaking from the company's New York City office.
The chain has more than 2,100 jewelry
stores nationwide, she said, and all now carry products meeting
California's new standards. "We are having all of our jewelry made to
one set of standards," Jacobs said.

The growing crop of state legislation regulating lead levels in
jewelry follows a steadily increasing number of jewelry recalls during
the past several years, prompted by health concerns.

The hazards of lead were tragically underscored by the severe
poisoning in 2003 of a 4-year-old Oregon boy, who swallowed a medallion
made of nearly 40 percent lead purchased from a vending machine,
although he survived. But in 2006, a 4-year-old boy in Minnesota died
painfully after swallowing an almost-pure-lead trinket.

 "Lead is a very toxic material," said Caroline Cox, research director for the Center for Environmental Health in Oakland.

Manufacturers have long used lead in jewelry, as it's not only
less expensive than other metals used to make jewelry, like zinc or
tin, but it melts at a lower temperature and flows more easily into

It's also heavy, making jewelry feel more substantial. Some
paint colors used in making jewelry can only be made with lead, added
Gale. And for some plastics, like vinyl, lead stabilizes and
strengthens the material.

But that manufacturing practice came under scrutiny when the
group, along with the California Attorney General's Office and another
environmental group, filed a lawsuit in 2004 against numerous companies
in the jewelry industry for violations of Proposition 65, which sets
strict standards for allowable exposures to a list of substances.

That lawsuit led to a 2006 agreement with more than 100
jewelry manufacturers, distributors and retailers, who agreed to meet
the strict new standards that all parties negotiated for lead levels in
jewelry. The standards in that agreement were used to develop the new
state law, Assembly Bill 1681.

That law allows no more than 600 parts per million, or 0.06
percent, of lead in the surface coating used in jewelry, including
enamel and the lacquer used to create faux pearls. It also caps at 600
ppm the lead allowed in plastic or rubber components like beads and
strings, although on Sept. 1, 2009, that allowable amount drops to 200

One compromise the Center for Environmental Health and the
other plaintiffs made was the allowable amount of lead in the metal
comprising the interior of adult jewelry, said Cox.

In children's jewelry, no part of the product can contain
more than 600 ppm. But for adults, the rules are more lenient. Stores
and distributors can sell jewelry with an alloy that is 10 percent lead
until Sept. 1, 2009, after which the allowable amount drops to 6

"It's a negotiated process," Cox explained. "We don't get everything we want, and they don't get everything they want."

Nonetheless, she said, the levels still represent a significant
improvement. "Even dropping to 10 or 6 percent is a huge reduction,"
she said.

The primary route of exposure for lead intake from jewelry is
through hand-to-mouth contact, explained Cox. For children, that could
mean swallowing a small item. For both children and adults, touching an
item with lead, and then touching your mouth, will also lead to
ingestion of the toxic metal.

Contact with skin, however, isn't regarded as an efficient
means of absorbing lead, according to the California Department of
Toxic Substances Control.

"The exception is if the skin is broken," Cox added.

It's difficult to know which jewelry has lead and which
doesn't, although fine jewelry like gold, silver and platinum is not of
concern. And it's the less expensive brands produced overseas that pose
the greatest hazard. Consumer Reports noted that in 2007, of 19 jewelry
recalls, all but two were for products made in China.

Cox said a low-cost test for lead, sold in hardware stores, can be used by consumers to test lead levels in jewelry they own.

In an environmental irony, two 2007 studies from Ashland
University in Ohio found evidence that lead in the jewelry they
examined likely came from American electronic equipment or batteries
sent to China for recycling.

"We send them our waste, and they send it back to us," said Cox.

But Gale, with the Fashion Jewelry Trade Association, said
industry practices have changed significantly since the jewelry
industry representatives hammered out an agreement with the Center for
Environmental Health and the Attorney General's Office. The jewelry
industry in the United States in recent years cut off the loop of
returning recycled lead into their products, he said.

Jewelry companies now require manufacturers in China and
elsewhere to use other metals instead of lead to create alloys for use
in children's jewelry, Gale said. And they strictly monitor compliance
with the law's other requirement.

"The jewelry industry completely reformulated the raw materials used to make jewelry," Gale said.

The more than 200 members of his association, which include
major brand names like Claire's Stores and Liz Claiborne to
lesser-known firms such as Perfect Pearl Co., U&I Imports and
Treasures & Trinkets, also now hire independent inspectors to
monitor compliance with California's new standards.

"They just don't want to do anything that's not totally in
compliance with these standards," Gale said. "They don't want the
publicity, the liability."

Gales said he's confident that shelves in states with laws
governing lead levels in jewelry are clear of jewelry products
containing excess lead, at least for those stores owned or supplied by
members of the trade association.

"We can't speak for what everyone else does," he said.

Cox said the Center for Environmental Health recently purchased
a few pieces of low-cost jewelry, and found none with excess levels,
although she emphasized that was just a small sampling.

After the March 1 law takes effect, the center will conduct
more comprehensive tests to monitor compliance with the new law, as
well as the Sept. 1 law governing children's jewelry. The Toxic
Substances Control Department will also conduct inspections to monitor
compliance, said Ann Hanger, with the agency.

"We'll certainly be rolling out an enforcement initiative," Hanger said.

Cox added that the Center for Environmental Health plans to
keep monitoring lead levels in jewelry long after the new law takes

"Right now, everyone's being really careful," she said. "But that might change later on."