Jon Gambrell, AP Writer, Newsvine

LITTLE ROCK – Wal-Mart Stores Inc. pulled sets of baby bibs Wednesday from its stores nationwide after the bibs tested positive for high levels of lead, a store official said.

The bibs, sold under the Baby Connection brand name, came in packs of two to seven bibs, with embroidered prints or images of Sesame Street characters. Some were sold as long ago as 2004. The bibs were made by Hamco Inc. exclusively for the Bentonville-based retailer.

Mia Masten, a Chicago-based spokeswoman for Wal-Mart, said the vinyl portion of the bibs exceeded the lead levels set by Illinois for children's products. She said the company had worked with the Illinois attorney general's office to pull the items and later decided to expand the recall nationwide.

Masten said about 60,000 of the bib bundles were sold in Illinois without any reported injuries.

"We at Wal-Mart are committed to working … to develop industry standards for the elimination of vinyl in children's products," Masten said.

Masten said officials with the world's largest retailer have been in contact with Hamco. She referred all questions about the products' manufacturing to Hamco.

Officials at Hamco, a subsidiary of Crown Crafts Inc. of Gonzales, La., said the company had no comment, and they referred questions to Wal-Mart.

The Illinois attorney general's office identified bibs sold between June 2004 to the end of March this year in Wal-Mart stores throughout the state. Tests there on three styles of the bibs tested positive for lead more than 600 parts per million, the state's standard for lead in children's products, said Robyn Ziegler, spokeswoman with the attorney general's office.

"It's a PVC product," Ziegler said. "The lead in that product makes the vinyl softer."

While Wal-Mart pulled the product from its shelves nationwide, Masten said only customers in Illinois would be eligible to receive refunds or replacements. It wasn't immediately clear why the refunds only pertained to Illinois.

Initially, Masten said the recall only pertained to Illinois. Later Wednesday, she said it was nationwide.

Wal-Mart's recall comes after a lawsuit over the bibs by the Center for Environmental Health, based in Oakland, Calif. Alexa Engelman, a researcher there, said the center became aware of the bibs in September. Engelman said a report by an independent laboratory test contracted by the center showed the bibs contained 16 times the amount of lead allowed in paint.

Lead, used as a stabilizer in vinyl plastic, can be "easily substituted" for other products, Engelman said. She said the bibs' manufacturing tags show they were made in China.

"The lead doesn't need to be in there and it's not hard for these companies to take it out," she said. "In this case, we really feel like getting the products off of the shelf is an important first step and an important step to protect kids."

Public health experts consider elevated levels of lead in blood a significant health hazard for children. Studies have repeatedly shown that childhood exposure to lead can lead to learning problems, reduced intelligence, hyperactivity and attention deficit disorder. There is no lead level that is considered safe in blood, and recent studies have shown adverse health effects even at very low levels.

The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission issued a statement Wednesday saying that the bibs were safe if in good condition. However, if a bib "deteriorates to the point that a baby could pull or bite off and swallow a piece of vinyl containing the lead, then the amounts of lead consumed could approach levels of concern," the agency said.

Those who purchased the bibs in Illinois can return them at their local Wal-Mart for a full refund or can receive a free replacement by calling (877) 373-3812 between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. CDT.