Leaded Jewelry Found to Cause Harm to Kids

December 16, 2004

Leaded Jewelry Found to Cause Harm to Kids

A category of non-precious and mostly children's jewelry made with lead could cause brain damage and even wipe points from kids' IQs, researchers have found. A majority of the bracelets, rings, necklaces and earrings bought from many big chain stores leached enough lead to cause minor neurological damage with just 20 seconds of daily contact, according to a University of North Carolina Asheville study that will be published next month in the Bulletin of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology, reports Knight Ridder newswires.

Most of the jewelry tested was designed for children, researchers said. One ring leached lead at 250 times the federal limit of daily exposure in children age three and younger. Sellers are not required to disclose the content of jewelry, but at least two chains have taken steps to reduce or eliminate lead items.

Researchers say consumers have no way of telling which jewelry pieces could have dangerous lead levels. The biggest potential for high lead content is in items with a dull, antique-looking finish. The pieces are sold at all types of stores, not just chains. UNC Asheville researchers recommend not buying lead jewelry – typically, items not touted as being made of gold, silver or platinum – until manufacturers reduce the amount of lead.

"We hate to suggest a ban, but a lot of this jewelry is bad," says Rick Maas, a UNC Asheville environmental sciences professor who coauthored the study. Excessive amounts of lead in the bloodstream can cause brain and nerve damage, particularly in small children. This summer, the Consumer Product Safety Commission recalled 150 million pieces of toy jewelry sold in vending machines between 2002-04 because of dangerous lead levels. Four major importers halted shipments while talking with regulators on reducing the amount of lead in jewelry.

Federal regulators said they are now studying lead in costume jewelry sold by mass retailers. A report is due next year. The California attorney general sued 13 retailers in June for failing to disclose that some jewelry sold at their stores contained lead exceeding state standards. Merchants want to remove jewelry that fails to meet legal standards and will meet with manufacturer and attorney general officials this month, says Jeff Margulies, an attorney representing eight retailers named in the suit.

UNC Asheville researchers tested jewelry bought at 15 major retailers in California – including Wal-Mart, Target, Nordstrom and Claire's. Researchers wiped the jewelry pieces for 20 seconds, estimating that was an average length of time a child would fiddle with a bracelet, necklace or ring each day. More lead enters the bloodstream when children put their hands or the pieces of jewelry in their mouths.

A child's IQ could be reduced by two points, Maas says, if the child were to rub jewelry that the government deems minimally hazardous for just 20 seconds a day for a month. Among the 311 pieces of jewelry researchers tested, 54% contained more than three percent lead. Previous studies found dangerous levels of leaching in keys and plumbing parts containing as little as 1.5% lead.

Researchers looked closer at jewelry with dull gray plating that gave pieces an antique pewter appearance because the plating itself is made of lead. Among that group of 62 pieces, which contained 3% or more of lead, almost two-thirds leached enough lead to cause brain damage in children under seven, the study said.

Nordstrom began working on making all jewelry sold in the children's department lead-free last month, a spokeswoman said. Target said it has asked manufacturers not to use uncoated lead in jewelry. "We are surprised and disappointed to learn of the findings in the University of North Carolina report," a company statement said. Wal-Mart and Claire's officials had not returned calls to Knight Ridder by press time.

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