Stephanie M. Lee
July 11, 2012

Passing a store window display, you pause to admire a faux-leather purse whose bright-yellow hue would go perfectly with your outfit.

But along the bag’s strap or in the heart of the lining, lead may be lurking.

That’s what the Center for Environmental Health in Oakland discovered after a shopping spree at 21 major Bay Area retailers. Tests of 43 purses, bags and wallets found lead in levels exceeding limits set in a legal agreement.

Because the accessories are aimed at young women, many of whom are in the likeliest age bracket for pregnancy, they could present problems for mother and child alike, said Caroline Cox, research director at the Center for Environmental Health.

“The most sensitive time for a child to be exposed to lead is actually before they’re born, when they’re still inside their mom,” Cox said. “The way a child is exposed at that time is because of the lead exposure that the mom has.”

Health issues

Lead poisoning in adults is linked to infertility, mood disorders, memory loss and high blood pressure. In children, lead exposure can cause learning difficulties, behavioral problems, seizures, coma and even death, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The finding by the environmental health group arrives as California is putting into place some of the toughest laws in the nation to reduce or eliminate toxic chemicals from consumer products.

California currently limits lead in a small number of items, including candy, children’s toys, jewelry and wheel-balancing weights. National laws prohibit lead primarily in children’s products and some general-use items, such as paint. There is no federal standard for lead in adult handbags or wallets.

Fashion accessories are a good example of one (item) that falls through the cracks, so to speak,” said Cox, whose organization has sought to fill the void left by the law.

Since 2009, the Center for Environmental Health has sued and reached settlements with 200 handbag producers, distributors and retailers, including those most recently inspected. In each case, the defendant said the items they put on the market would match national standards for children’s products – no more that 300 parts per million of lead. In its most recent study, the organization examined nearly 300 accessories and found that 10 had lead levels greater than 10,000 parts per million. A $200 Tory Burch wallet from Neiman Marcus had 58,700 parts per million of lead – more than 195 times higher than the standard.

Most of the toxic purses were fashioned out of bright hues – yellow, red, orange, green – and artificial leather. Lead is often used as a dye or a pigment in making the purse, Cox said.

Off the shelves

Retailers 5-7-9 and Rainbow were among the biggest violators. Jeffrey Margulies, an attorney for the affiliated stores, said they had pulled the products from the shelves after the Center for Environmental Health found lead in those products. Most had apparently passed the manufacturer’s lead screenings before they were shipped, he said.

A spokeswoman for Neiman Marcus, which was also among the biggest violators, said the two kinds of products in question had been pulled from all its California stores and its website.

Purses aside, the Center for Environmental Health has sued manufacturers over lead in bounce houses, belts, beanbags, vinyl baby bibs and lunchboxes, children’s medicines, wood playground structures and jewelry. Health activists say federal and state regulations on lead are largely piecemeal and reactionary.

This month, the California Department of Toxic Substances Control expects to release proposed guidelines that would be used to ultimately name at least 3,000 “chemicals of concern” to be assessed and possibly replaced by safer substances in consumer products. Manufacturers, retailers and importers will probably have to make significant changes.

The list is part of an effort to implement the state’s green chemistry program, the first of its kind nationwide. Signed into law in 2008, it aims to reduce or eliminate hazardous chemicals in industry and the environment.

“The results from the Center for Environmental Health’s study show the need for a process that evaluates alternatives to toxic chemicals in consumer products,” said Deborah Rafael, director of the state’s Department of Toxic Substances Control. “While it’s too early to say if lead in women’s purses will be one of the first product/chemical combinations where we require an alternative assessment, the study and the response from retailers underscores that consumers are demanding safer products now.”

Places with problems

The following is the list of retailers found to carry products containing lead, according to the Center for Environmental Health. The specific brand names are in parentheses.

— 5-7-9 (5-7-9)

— (Sophisticated Style, Laurel and Sunset, M&M)

Ashley Stewart (Ashley Stewart)

— Basic (JC Fashions, Basic)


— Bloomingdale’s (Ralph Lauren)

— Charlotte Russe (Charlotte Russe)

— DSW (Big Buddha)

— (Big Buddha, Vieta, TOKYObay)

— Forever 21 (Forever 21)

— Neiman Marcus (House of Harlow 1960, Tory Burch)

— Nine West Outlet (Nine West)

— Nordstrom (Lodis)

— Nordstrom Rack (Tusk)

— (XOXO)

— Rainbow (Rainbow)

— Ross (Perfect Image, Giannini, Under One Sky, Lulu)

— Shiekh Shoes (Elleven K, Nila Anthony)

— (ShoeDazzle)

T.J. Maxx (Guess)

— Victoria’s Secret (Sondra Roberts)

Stephanie M. Lee is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. E-mail: Twitter: @stephaniemlee