Joanna Lin/California WatchThis tail of this dragon fly hair clip, sold at the Richmond Flea Market, was 2.7 percent lead.
Every Sunday, the Richmond Flea Market hosts more than 5,000 people looking for good bargains and cheap eats. From jumbles of clothes to miscellaneous computer parts, live chickens and puppies, shoppers can find just about anything – including jewelry.
Earlier this month, I reported that the state attorney general had repeatedly cited Rainbow Apparel, a national retailer with 35 stores in California, for selling jewelry with lead above legal limits. Although the majority of jewelry sold in California today meets state and federal standards – jewelry tests by the Center for Environmental Health last year found 96 percent compliance – some items can slip through the cracks.
Flea markets and thrift shops are subject to the same jewelry laws as big box stores like Walmart. But state and federal regulators largely skip over items sold at these venues, saying resources limit their enforcement to new, mass-produced jewelry.
So when California Watch recently held a public jewelry screening at the Richmond Flea Market, I did some shopping. I bought 24 pieces of jewelry – a mix of vintage and newer costume items, ranging from $1 to $10 each – to test with our rented X-ray fluorescence analyzer.
Joanna Lin/California WatchThe back of this bee pendant had more lead than allowed in adult jewelry.
The results: Only one item, a silver bee pendant that was 6.2 percent lead, screened above legal limits for adult jewelry. Several items had more than 0.03 percent lead – the standard for children's products – but might not fit the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission's definition of a children's product.
Six items were labeled either "lead free" or "lead safe," but only two actually contained no lead. But the items with lead may have been within legal limits.
I asked Charles Margulis, a spokesman for the Center for Environmental Health, an Oakland nonprofit that routinely tests jewelry for consumers and the state, whether such labels meant that items were completely without lead or that their lead content met legal limits.
"I don't think there's any defined standard for what you can label 'lead free' or 'lead safe,'" Margulis said. "They make it up as they go along. If there's no standard, it's a relatively meaningless term."
Joanna Lin/California WatchThese hoop earrings were labeled "lead free" but actually contained some lead.
Just as you cannot rely on labels to know if jewelry is safe, neither can you rely on appearance. I looked for items that the center often finds containing lead – dull-looking metals, fake pearls with pearlescent coating, plastic or vinyl cords, and lobster-claw clasps – and found that some were clean and others tainted.
For example, I thought a vintage silver bangle with intricate designs might screen high for lead. Jewelry makers like using lead because it's pliable and facilitates detailed designs. Tests showed it contained no lead.
But a similarly intricate vintage charm bracelet had as much as 1 percent lead – more than what's allowed for children's jewelry, but well within legal limits for adult jewelry.
Vintage items are not a priority for the Consumer Product Safety Commission, which regulates only children's jewelry.
"Children are not normally going to be wearing vintage jewelry," said Patty Davis, an agency spokeswoman.
Davis said a bigger concern for flea markets would be vendors selling recalled items. She would not say whether the commission targets flea markets for enforcement.
Joanna Lin/California WatchThis silver bangle was completely lead-free.
"I can tell you what we're not doing," she said. "We're not going to go to individual yard sales. We don't have the resources for that." (But yard sales must still meet product safety standards – see page 2 of this commission handbook [PDF] for resellers.)
The Center for Environmental Health keeps its testing efforts to major retailers.
"We don't have the resources," Margulis said. "We're looking to make change on a national level when at all possible, and there are no national flea market vendors that I'm familiar with."
Same goes for the Department of Toxic Substances Control, which regulates jewelry in California. Of the dozens of lead violations the agency has issued in the past three years, none concerned vintage items or jewelry sold at flea markets, said Charlotte Fadipe, a department spokeswoman.