FJ: Can you tell me something about Center for Environmental Health (CEH) became involved in the outing of high lead in children’s jewelry?
Michael Green, Executive Director (MG): The mission of The Center for Environmental Health (CEH) is protecting communities and families from toxic chemicals. We were looking for things children come into contact with that might have lead. Lead is a serious neurotoxin that can cause learning disabilities, behavioral problems and brain damage. In 2004 we discovered tested lead in jewelry and found it was extensive.
FJ: Once you found the problem, what happened then?
MG: We filed a suit against 100 large companies in 2004. I think a couple months after that we filed our first legal notices, 150 million pieces of lead-contaminated cheap jewelry was pulled from gumball machines around the country.
I assume that the lead jewelry came mainly from China, since that has been in the news.
MG: The gum ball jewelry was made in India. Lead is used as a raw material because it is cheap and easy to use in metal. In PVC plastic it’s used as a pigment and a stabilizer to hold other chemicals together.
FJ: Did these companies knowingly sold lead children’s jewelry?
MG: Hell yes. You can quote me. The buyers from Wal-Mart and Disney definitely knew about the lead issue. All the manufacturers knew. They refer to different metals by the percentage of lead that they have in it. Their basic attitude was, “Well, there’s not much lead in it, who cares because everyone else is doing it.”
After the initial suit, you continued to push the issue when even recently is in the news.
Yes. We went to California legislature and made the settlement law. California is 10% of the market in the country. You are not going to have two lines-one in CA and one nationally so the legislation should create a new national standard that may force the small companies to comply as well
Having said this-who is testing for this jewelry now? Only companies party to the settlement. The Feds don’t have resources or the will-not with Bush in office, so there’s inadequate enforcement. Is crazy, but it is a small nonprofit in CA that was joined by the Attorney General of CA. Recently Arnold Schwarzenegger signed a lead protection for children bill into law.
FJ: Your activism brought you the House of Representatives. What happened in Washington that strikes you even now?
MG: I was sitting behind the CEO of Mattel, Robert Eckert, watching him testify. He said that he didn’t know and that he was sorry. It was very much like Harry Truman. The buck stops here. “We’re good guys and have white hats.” The key point is that he said, “We recalled 9 million toys, so you can trust us to do the right thing” on Wednesday to Congress.
Then on Friday, two days later, in Hong Kong, Eckert did a press conference with the Chinese counterpart to our Consumer Products Safety Commission – they regulate lead in consumer products. He apologized to Chinese for harming the Chinese brand by accusing it of having lead! He must have known on Wednesday that he was going to say that on Friday.
This very low ethical standard was all planned out in advance. Most articles were complementary of Eckert on Friday. What happened on Saturday was not well covered. Saturday newspapers are the least read. There was not much blowback.
Looking at the list of defendants on your website, I was surprised. I don’t recall hearing about Federated, Saks and Nordstrom selling lead jewelry. I thought this issue was mainly around children’s jewelry.
Caroline Cox, Research Director (CC): Clearly some of the jewelry we tested is more oriented to children than adults, but it is a hard distinction to make. Little girls put on their Mom’s jewelry. Parents give their kids jewelry to wear. A parent talking on the phone might give a baby a bracelet that will end up in the baby’s mouth. Kids chew on jewelry all the time.
We definitely found jewelry for adults priced in the $40 to $60 range. Recently, much of the costume jewelry for sale was made from alloys that contained fairly large amounts of lead. In a published Ashland University Study, jewelry purchased in four different towns was tested for lead content. They found that the average piece of children’s jewelry was 44% lead. I think around 40% of the jewelry was over 80% lead.
The idea of what you put behind the plating does not matter was tragically refuted by the boy in MN who swallowed a plated charm and died. The plating was dissolved in the stomach. Any plated piece of jewelry, costume jewelry, probably has a chance of having a lead content; for example, fake pearl jewelry. It turns out that the coating that makes something look like a pearl can have a high lead coating. Lead is absorbed in the skin but usually this is not major-but if your child handled lead coated fake pearls and his hands ended up in his mouth, he could be ingesting lead.
FJ: Right now these companies are selling adult lead jewelry. Perhaps they have marked it down? Where does it end up – Dollar stores?
CC: March 1st, 2008 is the off the shelf date for all lead jewelry in stores, though some of the retails have agreed to accelerated compliance dates. Shipping compliance date was Aug 1st.
FJ: But this is only for California, right? Is there any way to assure that California stores are not just migrating product illegal in CA to other regions? There’s no national legislation around lead in jewelry, is there?
CC: Our experience with working with other industries is that most of the time the companies are not interested in trying to manufacture or distribute a separate product for the California market. Currently the Consumer Product Safety Commission has proposed draft regulations about lead in jewelry, but they are not final. There are also a number of bills before Congress that limit lead in children’s products.
FJ: Suppose you or your child has a piece of jewelry that might contain lead. What do you do?
CC: We get a lot of questions from parents who are concerned about the jewelry that they already own. It is not really expensive to test jewelry for lead. You can use a test kit used for testing lead in paint available in any hardware store, so if you have a favorite piece of jewelry it is pretty straight forward to figure out of there’s [delete apostrophe] problem.