Jeff Meade/FlickrLegislation awaiting Gov. Jerry Brown's approval would subject all companies to the same regulations for lead in jewelry.
California lawmakers approved a bill today that will impose tougher financial penalties on companies that sell lead-tainted jewelry.
The bill, by Sen. Fran Pavley, D-Santa Monica, closes a loophole in state law that has allowed dozens of retailers and suppliers to avoid financial penalties. SB 646, which passed the Senate 33-4, now heads to Gov. Jerry Brown for approval.
Pavley, who authored the state's landmark law five years ago, told senators that the bill was needed "to protect children and their public health."
"It's time to achieve the original intent of California's ban on lead in jewelry … and to hold accountable those who repeatedly violate that," she said.
Pavley introduced SB 646 in February, after a California Watch investigation found that more than 200 retailers and suppliers faced virtually no financial penalties for selling jewelry with illegal levels of lead – even if they did so repeatedly.
Lead is a neurotoxin that can damage the nervous system, brain, kidneys and reproductive system. Children are particularly vulnerable to the heavy metal.
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California has regulated lead in jewelry since 2007, but enforcement has operated on dual tracks: one for primarily large companies that signed a settlement with the state and one for everyone else.
Companies that signed the settlement agreed to strict lead limits, which became the basis of the state's law, and paid $2.6 million to establish a jewelry-testing fund. They are not fined for unlawful jewelry as long as they promptly remove it from stores.
Under limited circumstances, companies may be fined if they rack up several violations involving the same supplier in a short time. But no company – including the subject of California Watch's investigation, Rainbow Apparel, which was cited for 28 violations in 18 months – has met this threshold.
For all other companies – many too small to join the settlement – violations under state law run up to $2,500 a day, and up to $100,000 if they are intentional.
If Brown signs Pavley's legislation into law, all companies will be subject to the same enforcement terms – and potential financial penalties – in the state law. The bill also adds tie clips to the list of regulated jewelry.
The bill won bipartisan support in the Legislature and is backed by several consumer, environmental and health advocacy groups. Although the jewelry industry has largely remained quiet on the issue, the Fashion Jewelry and Accessories Trade Association, which represents more than 225 companies, issued a letter in opposition to state Assembly members last week. The letter was not sent to Pavley's office.
Companies that signed the settlement are "extremely conscientious about compliance," wrote Brent Cleaveland, the group's executive director. "Their reputations and business will suffer if they do not meet these requirements."
The association's members report that their annual lead-testing costs are as much as $1 million, he added. "Burdening companies that have spent historic amounts on safety assurance with these new regulations that do nothing additional to ensure the safety of children's products will needlessly increase costs and cost our industry jobs."
Pavley was not immediately available for comment. Supporters of the bill said they hope the bill deters companies from repeatedly selling unlawful jewelry.
"If I were in business and I were going to be fined over and over again for doing business outside the law, I would think twice about it," Elisa Odabashian, director of Consumers Union's West Coast office and state campaigns, told California Watch in April. "If they're as brazen as to do it with impunity now, will they continue? I hope not. But we have to do everything we can to make people follow the law and not give them ways around it."