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By Ella Tyler

The Sierra Club filed a lawsuit against the US Environmental Protection Agency this week because the EPA refused the group’s request that the agency regulate jewelry made with lead, particularly children’s and toy jewelry. The suit, filed in federal court in San Francisco, asks the court to force the EPA to address the problem.

Bracelets, rings, and charms made from lead are often sold in vending machines aimed at children and at dollar stores. However, major retailers also sell children’s and costume jewelry that has lead in it.

Jane Laping, executive director of Mothers for Clean Air, said, “It’s disturbing to hear about another source of lead that can injure our children. Parents are aware of the problems with lead in paint and mercury in fish that is a result of air pollution, but very few know about this hazard.”

In 2003, the Center for Environmental Health, a California advocacy group, tested hundreds of pieces of jewelry and found lead in about one third of the items sampled. Lead was found even in items labeled “Lead Free.” High levels were found in necklaces made with plastic cords and metal jewelry made with tin. Lead is not absorbed through the skin, but women or children who suck or chew on jewelry cords or metal parts are exposed to lead.

The Center sued the jewelry retailers and manufacturers under a California law that requires listing lead in consumer products. Many of the defendants agreed to reduce lead to trace amounts by September 2007 and eliminate lead by the end of August 2009. Brand names in the settlement include Disney, Liz Claiborne, Betsy Johnson, Juicy Couture, Lauren, Monet, and Napier. Retailers include Macy’s, Target, Penny’s, and Toys R Us — also Hot Topics and Claire’s, two chains that sell primarily to teens. A complete list of retailers and suppliers joining in the settlement is at http://www.cehca.org/jewelry.htm.

A child in Minnesota died of lead poisoning earlier this year after eating a heart-shaped charm packaged with a pair of Reebok shoes. The company recalled 300,000 of the Chinese-made charms, found to be 90 percent lead. After the death, the Sierra Club petitioned both EPA and the Consumer Product Safety Commission urging preventive action. CPSC has not yet decided how to respond to the Sierra Club’s petition. The EPA denied the request, which led to the filing of this lawsuit.

Jessica Frohman, chair of the National Toxics Committee of the Sierra Club, said, “EPA has the authority to correct this problem and it is irresponsible for them to sit passively on the sidelines.”

Frohman said that EPA regulation is necessary because the Consumer Product Safety Commission has only limited authority. “Its main power is to recall a product, but too few people hear about these.”

Lead can affect brain development in young children and has been directly linked to a wide range of learning disorders. It can also affect a developing fetus.

Tips on keeping children safe from lead jewelry can be found at the Sierra Club website.