Center for Environmental HealthThe clasp on this necklace, sold at Burlington Coat Factory, is 88 percent lead.
Since establishing strict standards on lead in jewelry five years ago, the California attorney general has found fewer and fewer toxic items every year. But some stores still are selling lead-tainted jewelry.
This month, the attorney general cited Burlington Coat Factory for 23 necklaces whose clasps contained illegal levels of lead – as much as 88 percent in one case. It also cited Styles for Less for selling four necklaces with excess lead.
The violations are not the first for either retailer, both of which signed California's landmark settlement [PDF] in 2006 that was the basis of the state's lead-in-jewelry law. Burlington Coat Factory was slapped with six violations last year. Styles for Less had 13 violations in February and 10 in the two years prior.
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The pattern at these retailers shows that they must do more to ensure their jewelry is safe, said Caroline Cox, research director at the Center for Environmental Health. The center, a nonprofit based in Oakland, regularly tests jewelry for the state using a fund established by the settlement.
Both retailers said they've removed the items identified by the attorney general from their stores. How they'll prevent future violations remains to be seen.
In a statement issued to California Watch, Burlington Coat Factory spokeswoman Danielle Arceneaux said the retailer programmed its registers to block sales of the lead-tainted necklaces and instructed its California stores to destroy them. Arceneaux declined to discuss the issue further.
Styles for Less is investigating the violations, which involved just one vendor, said Robert Maxwell, an attorney for the retailer.
"We actually have a very solid compliance program; we've just had a couple of problems with a couple vendors," he said. "I don't think we've got a widespread problem."
As a retailer, Styles for Less has maintained that the burden of compliance falls primarily on those who make and distribute jewelry. After its last violations, in February, the company's executive vice president and CFO, Augie DeAngelo, told California Watch that the retailer expects its vendors to comply with state and federal lead regulations:
"There's really not a lot we can do," he said. "It wouldn't make financial sense for us to actually test and measure how much lead and determine if it's acceptable or not."
California requires a jewelry manufacturer or supplier to display, or to provide upon request, certification that their products meet lead standards.
Asked whether Styles for Less had ever requested certification from its vendors, DeAngelo said: "We're the retailer. We're not required to do so. We've just put them all on notice that they have to."
At the time, DeAngelo said, "It's to the point now where it's not even worth it" to sell jewelry. Instead, the retailer has begun requiring its vendors to sign a contract agreeing to meet lead regulations, Maxwell said.
Another retailer, Rainbow Apparel, had contracts with its vendors, too. Even so, lead-tainted jewelry slipped through the cracks.
"The supply chain in today's global economy has gotten so complicated that it is just really easy for unintended things to happen," Cox said. "The only way that you can really check that is by checking it at multiple stages along the way, between the factory and the store."
Eventually, that's what Rainbow did. Once the biggest violator of California's lead-in-jewelry law, Rainbow purchased an X-ray fluorescence analyzer – a device commonly used to test consumer products for heavy metals – and began testing its jewelry before placing it in stores. It has had no violations since November.
"We're kind of hoping we can get a similar response from Burlington Coat Factory and Styles for Less," Cox said. "Certainly, the things that Rainbow did – to just do a better job of monitoring what they were selling – that's something that we really like to see retailers do."
Maxwell said Styles for Less would work with the attorney general to make the sure jewelry it sells is legal. "We're going to consider any measure we need to to try to make sure we're in compliance," he said.