Beware of bedecking yourself with too many brightly colored baubles this holiday season. A study by the Oakland, California-based Center for Environmental Health has found that brightly colored (especially red, green, orange and yellow) items — belts, bags and shoes made from inexpensive vinyl and plastic — contain high amounts of lead that can actually leave tiny and invisible particles on consumers’ hands. Items in more muted and dark colors were found to be less likely to be contaminated.
Using lead salts to create these bright, eye-catching colors has been a common practice since the Middle Ages, the New York Times notes. The amounts might be small but items like a wallet or a handbag come into direct contact with people’s skin and hands and can then be transferred into food and drink. Lead accumulates in our bodies over time and, even at very low levels, can cause nervous system damage, cardiovascular problems, kidney failure and much more.
The center has been testing items sold in stores and online for the past three years after a 2010 lawsuit that it filed found that a number of accessories sold by major retailers contained unacceptable levels of lead. An “unacceptable level” is defined as a safety limit of 300 parts per million of lead in leather goods and 200 ppm in vinyl products (which are prone to cracking). Retailers may pay a fine of up to $10,000 if they are found to be selling products above the specified limits; the money goes into a fund for further testing.
Declining levels of lead contamination have been found in most items from retailers including Target, H&M, Guess and J. Crew. On this round of testing, the center found lead contamination routinely in purses, belts and shoes that young fashionistas purchase from retailers like Wet Seal, Charlotte Russe and Forever 21.
These three retailers sold fashion accessories that contained more than 10,000 p.p.m. of lead or higher, according to Caroline Cox, the center’s research director. One pair of orange sandals had more than 25,000 p.p.m.; a pair of red pumps had above 30,000 p.p.m. and yellow belts had levels approaching 50,000 p.p.m.
Overall, the center tested 58 items from Wet Seal over the past twelve months and found that slightly more than half had lead levels above the safety standards. Almost a quarter of items from Charlotte Russe and Forever 21 did not meet the center’s lead limits.
Brent Cleaveland, executive director of the Fashion Jewelry and Accessories Trade Association, contends that the lead levels used by the center are “unfairly low and penalize companies seeking to provide low-cost accessories.” As he notes to the New York Times, many of the accessories are made in China and “it’s a gross exaggeration to suggest that the lead you get on your fingers from handling a wallet is a health problem.”
Emphasizing that “nobody wants to contaminate customers, and nobody wants to sell poisoned products,” Cleaveland also says that intensive testing of the vast array of small items that one finds at stores aimed towards, for instance, teenage girls, would “place a heavy burden on the businesses without necessarily protecting consumer health.” It would also very likely drive up the price of all those items, with a resulting effect on manufacturers’ sales, profit margins, etc.
The Chinese workers who make the accessories are very likely exposed to even higher levels of lead in the manufacturing process, Cox also notes. Items like a handbag or shoes are repeatedly handled, she also points out, and exposure to lead contaminants can add up, something that is all the more to be wary of for a teenager or a child.
The Fashion Jewelry and Accessories Trade Association has sought to provide protective measures for children’s jewelry but let’s face it, teenagers aren’t interested in buying that little kid stuff. A neon-hued belt or pair of sandals may not be to everyone’s taste but it’s safe to say that teenagers, for the most part, have their own ideas about what they want to wear (because their peers are wearing it too and because it is sold at stores — Forever 21 — that stock the latest trends).
If you’re searching for that last-minute holiday gift for your tween niece, skip the fast fashion items and, though it might cost a bit more, consider something that’s ethically made. Maybe she won’t think you have the best fashion sense, but you can show you have common sense and her health at heart.
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