Terence Chea, Associated Press, in the Fort Lauderdale Sun Sentinel, June 2, 2010

More than 40 major retailers and apparel makers have agreed to limit the use of lead in handbags and other fashion accessories, an environmental group said Wednesday.

The companies will set new industry standards for lead use in their products as part of a $1.7 million legal settlement filed in California on Tuesday in Alameda County Superior Court.

The agreement settles a lawsuit filed against the companies last year by the Oakland, Calif.-based Center for Environmental Health.

The environmental advocacy group found high levels of lead when it tested dozens of vinyl and faux leather women’s handbags, purses and wallets it bought at major retail outlets in the San Francisco Bay area.

Michael Green, the center’s executive director, said he hopes other companies that make, import or sell fashion accessories will follow the health standards spelled out in the legal agreement.

The settlement means “millions of women no longer need to fear that their purse may pose a threat to their health or the health of their children,” Green said.

The retailers that signed the settlement include Macy’s, Target, Kohl’s, JC Penney, Guess, Sears, Kmart, Saks and Victoria’s Secret.

Jeffrey Margulies, who represents seven retailers in the case, said his clients agreed to the settlement to avoid costly, time-consuming litigation.

The retailers do not believe the lead levels in their products were dangerous to consumers, but “if customers are concerned about lead in products, this settlement should remove any concern about that,” Margulies said.

Other companies can join the settlement by agreeing to comply with its content standards, which would protect them from future litigation involving their products’ lead levels.

The $1.7 million settlement will include payments to California’s Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment and the Center for Environmental Health. The center said it will use the money to pay for legal expenses, monitor compliance with the agreement and fund its environmental protection work.

Lead exposure has been linked to a variety of health problems including higher infertility rates for women and increased risk for stroke, high blood pressure and heart attacks. Young children and pregnant women are particularly at risk.

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