Lower lead levels in jewelry show legislation can make a difference.

Sep 14, 2010

Cox, C and M Green. 2010. Reduction in the prevalence of lead-containing jewelry in California following litigation and legislation. Environmental Science & Technology doi:10.1021/es903745b.

Synopsis by Ami Zota, Sc.D

Consumers see fewer pieces of lead-containing jewelry - both cheap and expensive - in stores after California legislation is implemented.

A new study finds litgation and legislation work to reduce contaminants found in consumer products, and thus, lower health risks to people who use them. Specifically, researchers discovered that the percent of lead-containing jewelry in California retail stores dropped following litigation and legislation that took effect about three years ago.

Only 4 percent of the jewelry tested exceeded California's lead standards. This is a considerable drop from the 50 percent mark that was estimated prior to the law.

Surprisingly, the intended market and the price did not matter. Lead was found in both children's and adult jewelry, as well as discount and high-end trinkets.

Lead is a well-characterized pollutant that can disrupt brain development, memory and learning in young children. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control has set blood lead guidelines for children at 10 micrograms per deciliter (µg/dL), but negative effects to the human brain have been observed at lead levels as low as 2 µg/dL. Many experts believe there is no safe level of exposure.

While lead-based paint is the major source of lead exposure for U.S. children, 30 percent of elevated blood levels in children are due to other sources, including lead-containing jewelry. Lead can pass from the jewelry to people through hand-to-mouth contact, direct mouthing of the jewelry or swallowing parts.

California set new standards for lead content for children’s jewelry at 600 miligrams per kilogram (mg/kg) starting in 2007 and in adult jewelry at varying levels starting in 2008. The federal government also set lead standards for children’s jewelry in 2008 at the same level as California's limit.

To assess compliance with this new legislation, researchers from the nonprofit Center for Environmental Health purchased about 1,500 necklaces, bracelets and other jewelry from 42 major retailers between 2008 and 2009. They screened each piece and its components for lead using an X-ray fluorescence (XRF) analyzer and further analyzed lead in the jewelry that violated the standards.

More than 95 percent of the jewelry contained lead levels that were in line with the new standards.

The other 5 percent exceeded the new lead level requirement, usually by a significant amount. On average, levels ranged from five to 93 times higher than the new standards. The majority of the 59 violations occurred in adult jewelry. The researchers found only nine violations in jewelry marketed to preteen/teens and one violation in children’s jewelry meant for kids under 6 years old.

The most common violation was the “lobster-claw” clasp, frequently used on necklaces and bracelets. The lead-level violations occurred in jewelry purchased at both discount retailers and retailers that sell expensive merchandise. Therefore, consumers have no simple way to avoid purchasing jewelry with high lead content, which underscores the importance of legislation and enforcement to public health.

The researchers did not test jewelry before the new, lower standards were implemented. To compare levels before and after, they used data collected from agencies in California and other states. These estimates suggest that lead-containing jewelry was extremely common, with up to 50 percent of items containing high levels – more than 30,000 mg/kg of lead. 

The authors conclude that litigation and legislation have been effective tools for reducing the amount of jewelry with high lead content in California. They will continue to monitor and test jewelry for another year with the goal of completely eliminating lead  in the products.