If you were to search for men who admit to frequenting Claire’s Boutique – where your teenage daughters shop for clothes, jewelry, and other fashion accessories with short shelf lives – I am quite certain that you would spend a long time looking. I visit this store often, along with many others that sell women’s and children’s jewelry. Creepy? Not at all. Ignoring the puzzled faces that ask, “What’s up with this guy, and why is he bringing 20 necklaces to the check-out counter?”, I remind myself of why I put any sort of masculine self-consciousness on the line: to protect unknowing children and parents from the hidden danger of lead-tainted jewelry.
In the summer of 2006, more than seventy companies signed a legal agreement with the Center for Environmental Health and the California Attorney General. The agreement set strict limits for lead—which causes cancer, birth-related defects, and other reproductive harm—in jewelry. The companies also contributed to a fund that pays CEH to check whether or not they’ve gotten the lead out.
Now, 22 months into the project, our findings show that some companies continue to sell jewelry with illegal amounts of lead.
How do I know? Well, every week, I shop at three or four retailers who agreed to end sales of lead-tainted jewelry and buy about 15-20 pieces of jewelry from each. I frequently hear, “Oh my goodness, is this for your girlfriend? That’s so sweet!” from the teenage sales clerk. When she realizes that I’m buying about 20 pieces of jewelry and spending over $200, it becomes more of a “Wow, you must have LOTS of girlfriends!”
But I digress. Buying the jewelry is only half the job. The other half is to screen each component of each piece of jewelry for lead. For this part, I use CEH’s X-Ray Fluorescence analyzer (XRF), which identifies all of the metal elements in an item. Most of the time, our results indicate that the jewelry does not contain dangerous levels of lead.
But when the XRF results suggest a possible lead violation, we purchase duplicates of the item in question. We then send the duplicate pieces to an independent lab for further analysis. If the lab results indicate that the lead levels are above the legal standards, CEH notifies our partners at the California Attorney General’s office, who then ask the store to stop selling the piece of jewelry. So far, every store has agreed.
The most common component on a piece of jewelry that we’ve found to contain lead is the lobster claw clasp – the small item that fastens two ends of a necklace together. If you wear jewelry that has such a clasp, remember to wash your hands after you put on or remove your jewelry.
To date, we have tested about 2,800 different pieces of jewelry from stores that have agreed to eliminate lead threats from their jewelry. In the past 22 months, we have found over 70 items that exceed the legal limits for lead.
This number should be zero.
It should have been zero on September 1, 2008 when CEH began the jewelry-monitoring project, six months after the stores were obligated to comply. It should have been zero when companies learned that lead is a toxic chemical in the first place. In other words, I should not be having “exciting” XRF sessions in which I find jewelry containing lead in concentrations that are more than five, six, or more times higher than the legal limit. Because our data over the past 22 months clearly shows the prevalence of lead in jewelry, we are hopeful that the project will continue into its third year so that companies will ultimately cease to poison consumers.
I might even begin responding to a sales clerk’s, “We hope to see you next time!” with, “No, you really don’t.”