They look innocuous enough: a kid's ring with a colorful, cartoony owl; a pair of beaded bracelets, one reading "Best," the other "Friends," to be shared by devoted BFFs.
But the jewelry, and many similar pieces made for children, are anything but harmless, according to a new study released by two environmental groups. When researchers tested that cute owl for the presence of toxic chemicals, they found high levels of bromine—which has been linked to fertility and learning issues, among other problems, and is commonly used in flame-retardant materials—as well as four other toxic chemicals: chlorine, lead, arsenic and mercury.
Meanwhile, best friends who share the bracelets will also be sharing high levels of lead—linked to brain damage, learning disabilities, and reproductive and neurological problems—as well as lower levels of chlorine, cadmium, arsenic, mercury and bromine, according to the study results.
The researchers bought both the items in Holyoke, at Claire's, a chain jewelry and accessories store for kids and teens. A third piece bought at the same store, a "best friends" necklace, tested positive for mercury, chlorine, cadmium, arsenic and bromine.
Those results were far from atypical. The report, released last week by Massachusetts' Alliance for a Healthy Tomorrow and the Ecology Center, a Michigan-based nonprofit, looked at 99 pieces of low-cost kids' jewelry purchased at major retailers in six states, including Massachusetts, Vermont and New York. The researchers tested the pieces for six chemicals that have been linked to health problems, including cancer, learning disabilities and birth defects; 58 of the items, they found, had high levels of at least one of those chemicals.
Cadmium and arsenic, for instance, are known carcinogens, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Forty-seven of the tested products contained cadmium, with 10 containing levels classified by researchers as high. Twelve pieces of the jewelry were classified as having high levels of arsenic.
Almost half of the jewelry—48 of 99 pieces tested—contained some level of lead, which adversely affects multiple systems in the body and is especially dangerous to children. Last year, the federal Consumer Product Safety Commission lowered the acceptable level of lead in children's products from 300 parts per million to 100 ppm.
"Lead is a heavy metal that is toxic for children, and associated with lowered levels of learning, impaired hearing, brain damage and, at high levels, can be fatal," the CPSC said in announcing the decision. Twenty-seven of the products tested for the report exceeded the old legally allowed limit for lead, 300 ppm, including the bracelet purchased at the Holyoke Claire's store.
The Advocate was unable to reach a Claire's spokesperson for comment on the report by deadline. The company did issue a statement to Boston's CBS affiliate for a report on that station, questioning the accuracy of the report and asserting that Claire's considers safety a top priority and complies with relevant consumer safety laws.
One problem: those laws are full of holes. While the CPSC sets limits on lead in children's products, not all hazardous chemicals are regulated; the agency, for instance, has postponed a decision on a petition from environmental and public health groups to restrict the use of cadmium in children's jewelry while it works with industry groups to develop voluntarily guidelines.
For companies to offer as a defense their compliance with federal regulations is "sort of an empty statement," said Elizabeth Saunders of the Alliance for a Healthy Tomorrow. "The only chemical that's federally regulated is lead." That means a company can satisfy federal regulations by limiting lead while still selling kids' products with dangerous components such as arsenic and mercury, she noted.
"We have this myth in the United States that we're being protected by the government," Saunders said. "It's funny, because people don't trust the government in many other ways, but they do seem to trust the government in this way—they expect that their products are safe."
But, as the new report makes clear, that trust is not always warranted. Efforts are being made to tighten restrictions on the use of toxic chemicals in consumer products. On the federal level, Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) is leading a charge to reform the Toxic Substances Control Act, which has not been updated since 1976. Lautenberg's bill has 15 co-sponsors in the Senate, including Vermont's Patrick Leahy and Bernie Sanders. Neither of Massachusetts' senators, John Kerry or Scott Brown, is a co-sponsor.
On the state level, Massachusetts' "Safer Alternatives" bill would require manufacturers to replace potentially hazardous chemicals in their products with safer alternatives where feasible. That bill is currently before the Senate Ways and Means Committee. Like the federal effort, the Massachusetts bill faces stiff opposition from industry groups. It did, however, get a boost last month, when 22 senators—more than half the total body—wrote to Sen. Stephen Brewer (D-Barre), chairman of Ways and Means, urging the committee to grant the bill a favorable report and move it forward for a full Senate vote. Among the signers were several key members of the Senate leadership, including Sen. Stan Rosenberg (D-Amherst), Senate president pro tempore.
It's important for the public to keep pressure on elected officials to improve consumer safety protections, Saunders said. "It's a battle, because the chemical industry is set tooth and nail against being regulated. We're running a long-term campaign. These are not quick fixes."
But they're crucial, she added, given how spotty the existing protections are—as proven by the jewelry study: "Unfortunately, there's not very much we can do as consumers, because [the jewelry pieces] are not labeled, and even when they are labeled, sometimes they're not labeled accurately." For example, she noted, one piece of jewelry tested by the researchers was labeled "lead-free" but, in fact, contained high levels of the metal.
In the short term, Saunders said, the best advice she can offer families is simply to avoid buying cheap kids' jewelry. "I wish I had a better answer for parents and grandparents and aunts and uncles who want to buy this, and kids who want it," she said. "This is really a problem we can't shop our way out of at this time. We need to change the policies and change the laws."