Marc Lifsher, Leslie Earnest, and Victoria Kim, The Los Angeles Times

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

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.

"It's the only way to keep things straight until they sort it out," he said.

A spokesman for Party City, whose Chula Vista outlet sold a Best
Friends Two Bracelets that the state found to be lead-tainted, said in
a statement that it would stop selling it "if it is not compliant with
regulatory requirements." The statement didn't indicate whether the
store had stopped selling any particular items.

TJX Cos. said it was "diligently investigating the issue" of an
allegedly tainted necklace and bracelet set sold at one of its
Marshalls stores and would work with the vendor and "take appropriate
action on a timely basis."

Retailers have had plenty of time to stop selling lead-tainted
children's jewelry, said Charles Margulis, a spokesman for the Center
for Environmental Health. The Oakland-based advocacy group used a
lawsuit under California's Proposition 65 toxics law to force a
settlement with stores and producers in January 2006 to set the
nation's first legally binding rules on lead content in jewelry.

"The retailers need to start taking this more seriously," Margulis
said. "They've known about this problem for at least three years, and
these pieces are still on the shelves. They should be penalized for
lack of action."

At the Glendale Galleria on Wednesday, Dawn Beno, 31, of Burbank said
she had never purchased jewelry for her 16-month-old because she was
worried about its safety.

"But I didn't expect it to be that bad," she said, glancing at her
daughter. "Look, she's chewing on her purse right now. Everything goes
into her mouth. It's concerning — because who knows what it does?"

People who have purchased lead-tainted jewelry should return the items for a refund, state regulators said.