August 6, 2007 The Pump Handle 3Comment

In today’s New York Times, Eric Lipton and Louise Story examine the problem of lead in inexpensive children’s jewelry. Inspections have found lead problems one out of five times when testing these products, suggesting that hundreds of thousands of contaminated jewelry items remain on the market. Here’s why jewelry is particularly problematic:

Jewelry is perhaps the most dangerous place for lead because children can swallow an entire ring or pendant, causing acute poisoning, which can cause respiratory failure, seizures and even death, whereas neurological damage and learning deficiencies are often associated with exposure to lead paint. Many children also tend to suck on jewelry or put it in their mouths, allowing lead to be absorbed into their bloodstream.

From 2000 to 2005, about 20,000 children turned up in emergency rooms after ingesting jewelry, according to a hospital surveillance program by the agency, though it is not know how many of those cases involved lead. These cheap products, made of lead because it is an inexpensive metal filler, also easily fall apart, making it even easier for a child to swallow a small part.

The Consumer Product Safety Commission has been working on the problem of lead in children’s jewelry since early 2005, and 17.9 million pieces of jewelry – 95 percent of them made in China – have been pulled from the market since then. These recalls haven’t solved the problem, though.

First, as Harrison Newton noted last week, recalls don’t succeed in getting the products back from most of the purchasers. Lipton and Story give the example of a Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment recall of silver-coated metal charms; the company offered a free DVD to entice people to return them, but a spokesman only reported getting 6.7 percent of them back.

Then, there’s the question of whether a company whose products have been recalled will clean up its act. Sources cited in the article suggest that current enforcement powers are insufficient to prompt reform:

Federal officials said that they had made progress in curtailing the lead threat in children’s jewelry, but that they needed more enforcement powers, like the ability to impose fines or even criminal charges against repeat offenders. Scott Wolfson, a spokesman for the consumer safety commission, said, “We want to get to a point of not having to do recall after recall, and simply make the marketplace safe.”


Children’s advocates say that neither the federal government nor the private sector has done enough to ensure that jewelry entering the market is not contaminated with lead. Far broader federal tests are necessary, they say, backed up by stiff penalties and even criminal charges if companies, seeking to maximize profits by buying from the lowest-cost suppliers, continue to import contaminated children’s jewelry.

As we’ve learned from recent problems with Chinese food imports, it’s not easy to ensure that items produced overseas meet this country’s safety standards:

The importers, in the commission’s documents, often assert that their contracts prohibit jewelry with elevated levels of lead. But by failing to test a large enough sample of the delivered goods — not just at the start of production, but regularly as new batches are produced — these companies still ended up selling hazardous products, the documents show.

The CPSC is considering a formal ban – as opposed to just an enforcement standard – on lead in children’s jewelry. Lipton and Story note that comments on the propsed ban are supportive, with a notable exception:

Jewelry with lead is not a danger, Guo LiSheng, a deputy director general at China’s General Administration for Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine, wrote in a March letter to the commission, as long as it is covered by a protective coating.

The regulation, he argued, was unnecessary and would “increase the cost of producing and inspection of the manufacturers of children’s metal jewelry, and bring unnecessary obstacles to trade.”

Companies are getting their products manufactured in China and testing only small amounts of them because these practices keep costs low. When children’s deaths from lead jewelry are added to the balance sheet, the cost becomes unacceptably high. If companies – importers and manufacturers alike – disagree, then it’s up to us to translate the message into fines and lost sales.

3 thoughts on “Why Lead Jewelry Hangs On

  1. The Chicago Tribune had a cover story about lead-contaminated Chinese jewelry yesterday. There was a large photo of a young girl, maybe 12 years old, working in the factory making the jewelry. She had that weary look on her face like she’d been doing it a long time, not only that day but as a proportion of her lifetime.


  2. Thanks – and you’re right that lead is an occupational health issue, too.

    It’s particularly alarming to see child labor in settings where they’re exposed to toxic substances. This is one of the scary things about the shipments of e-waste going overseas: in some places, children are picking through (or melting down) the old electronics, which can contain lead, mercury, beryllium, etc.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.