The Checkout

Leading the Fight Against Lead

The California public-interest group, the Center for Environmental Health, has been on a mission for the past three years: to get rid of lead in products made for children. Slowly but steadily, the group is succeeding.

Last week, the center announced a settlement with 71 major retailers--including Target, Kmart, Macy's, Nordstroms, Claires, Sears, Toys R Us and Disney--that will result in the reformulation of children's jewelry to reduce lead to trace amounts. The settlement does not include the nation's largest retailer, Wal-Mart, and it is only binding in California. But the center said it expects most, if not all, the companies, will adopt the lead standards nationally. The companies did not admit any wrongdoing.

The settlement, which covers the metal pieces as well as the plastic vinyl cords, comes after the center tested hundreds of pieces of children's jewelry over the past few years.) More than a third of the pieces tested were found to contain dangerous amounts of lead. The group found lead levels in the vinyl cords ranging from 1,400 to 20,000 parts per million and lead levels in a coating on one child's bracelet tested at over 165,000 parts per million (ppm). The settlement limits metal components in and coatings on children's jewelry to less than 600 ppm of lead while plastic components can contain no more than 200 ppm.

Nationally, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission has recalled more than 155 million pieces of children's jewelry in the past two and a half years. A year ago, the agency issued an interim enforcement notice saying it would investigate, and possibly take action against, any jewelry if any piece contained more than 600 ppm of lead.

The environmental group also has been pressing to get rid of soft vinyl lunchboxes after its tests found unacceptable levels of lead in several of them. The group has filed lawsuits against several manufacturers to halt sales and also pressed state and federal government officials for some action.

In November, the group scored one victory as New York's Attorney General Eliot Spitzer announced a settlement with one wholesaler, Fast Forward LLC, which agreed to recall its lunchboxes in New York and refund consumers for the product, which sold for about $10. Wal-Mart also has agreed to remove the lunchboxes from its stores nationwide. New York's major concern was not that the plastic boxes--which feature Spiderman, Superman, Batman, etc.--could harm children, but rather that there was a possibility of lead being released into the environment when the lunchboxes were thrown away. In December, Connecticut's Attorney General Richard Blumenthal ordered lead lunchboxes off store shelves in his state.

The Center for Environmental Health hopes the move by New York and Connecticut will prompt further government action from other states. A federal rule is unlikely, however. Last year, the CPSC posted a notice on its Web site to say its own tests found no instances of hazardous lead levels. "Based on the low levels of lead found in our tests, in most cases, children would have to rub their lunchbox and then lick their hands upwards of 100 times a day, for about 15-30 days, in order for the lunchbox to present a health hazard."

By  |  February 1, 2006; 10:15 AM ET Consumer News
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