In May 2009, the California attorney general’s office ordered a national retailer with nearly three dozen stores throughout the state to stop selling jewelry with illegal levels of lead.
Five months later, the state followed up with another warning directed at Rainbow Apparel after finding more lead-tainted jewelry.
Three months after that came another warning.
And then another.
Each time, the state tested products from Rainbow Apparel outlets in the Bay Area and found jewelry that exceeded the limits for lead – including one silver star-shaped pendant labeled “kids” and “lead free” that was more than 2,600 times above the legal threshold.
Each time, the New York-based retailer pledged to immediately remove the tainted jewelry.
Each time, the state considered the matter closed.
After the state in June issued its fourth warning in the span of 13 months, California Watch obtained 30 pieces of jewelry from Rainbow Apparel stores in Richmond, Oakland and Emeryville and sent them to a laboratory for testing.
The results: more lead.
Among the six pieces that registered above the legal limit was a pendant that had been part of the June warning letter. It had mistakenly been left on the shelves, a Rainbow attorney said.
Mandy Hofmockel/California WatchAfter the state issued a violation notice involving this pendant, California Watch was able to buy the same item at Rainbow.
As Americans consume more and more products from China and other countries with weaker consumer safety regulations, the case of Rainbow Apparel shows the persistence of lead contamination and, in turn, the potential dangers for unsuspecting consumers.
Although much of the regulatory spotlight has shifted to cadmium, another dangerous metal, lead continues to present challenges for regulators, shoppers and parents. Just as tainted items are removed, a new wave of dangerous necklaces, pendants and bracelets takes their place.
“That’s unacceptable,” said Sen. Fran Pavley, D-Santa Monica, who wrote California’s lead-in-jewelry law in 2006. Retailers, she said, should do more to ensure their products are safe, including voluntary testing. Rainbow doesn't typically test jewelry before stocking its shelves.
A California Watch investigation found other holes in the safety net that is supposed to protect consumers. Consider:
- Violations rarely result in financial penalties – even when offenders are repeatedly found to sell dangerous products. Despite its recurring problems, Rainbow has not been fined by the state.
- Vendors further down the supply chain aren’t always notified about problems with their products. Rainbow officials say the company immediately notifies its vendors when violations arise. But those vendors may not tell their own suppliers, allowing dangerous items to remain in circulation.
- Customers who buy tainted jewelry are left in the dark. Rainbow has not informed its customers that it sold jewelry with high levels of lead, and California law does not require the company to do so.
As California Watch was preparing to publish this story, the state last month issued the retailer a fifth violation notice after finding three more lead-tainted pieces of jewelry at Bay Area stores.
Long-term lead exposure can damage the nervous system in both children and adults. At high levels, the metal can severely damage the brain and kidneys and cause reproductive problems and even death. The Environmental Protection Agency says lead is a probable human carcinogen.
Jewelry is not a leading source of lead exposure, and just touching jewelry that has lead on its surface is unlikely to be a health concern. But when swallowed or chewed on, lead can quickly spread through the bloodstream.
“Don’t they think they should stop selling it?” asked Oakland resident Hareesha Dudley, 18. She said she previously had bought a necklace and bracelet at the Rainbow store in Oakland’s Eastmont Town Center for her school prom. Both the attorney general’s office and California Watch bought jewelry with high levels of lead at the same store.
Like many Rainbow customers, Dudley shops at the store at least once a month.
“They should notify you to return it for credit – put signs up,” she said.
But Rainbow never did. The store posted no signs, no notices – either near its jewelry displays or at its checkout counters.
Rainbow shops are stocked floor to ceiling with women’s, juniors and plus-size clothes. School uniforms are sold alongside T-shirts and hooded jackets for children. Handbags hang from walls, and high-heeled shoes and sandals fill shelves as tall as customers. Colorful, densely packed clothing hangs under big red circles marked $2, $3, $5, $7.
Found in mostly working-class neighborhoods, many with predominantly black or Latino residents, the stores host steady streams of teenage girls and young families, often with toddlers in tow. Rainbow Apparel operates more than 1,100 stores in the United States, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, including 35 in California under the names Rainbow and 5-7-9.
Rainbow would not say how much of the tainted jewelry was sold. And the company’s legal counsel described high levels of lead in the retailer’s jewelry as “an isolated problem.” Still, Jeffrey Margulies, an attorney at Fulbright & Jaworski in Los Angeles who represents the retailer, added: “They’re thinking about not selling jewelry – they actually are.”
California has one of the strictest laws governing lead in jewelry. Whereas federal law regulates only jewelry for children, who are more vulnerable to lead, California’s limits extend to jewelry sold to adults.
Beginning in 2006, more than 200 vendors and retailers, including Rainbow, agreed to abide by the new stricter standards as part of a settlement. Many of the companies had been sued by the state and environmental groups for carrying products that contained high lead levels. The companies agreed to pay $2.6 million to establish a jewelry-testing fund.
The state Department of Toxic Substances Control and the attorney general oversee California’s jewelry regulations. Most cases are handled by the attorney general’s office, which is responsible for enforcing the settlement.
The attorney general’s office has relied on the Oakland-based Center for Environmental Health to perform its initial lead tests. The nonprofit center screens about 30 jewelry items each week from all over California.
When the center finds high levels of lead, it sends the jewelry to an independent laboratory. If the results are confirmed, the state issues violation notices. The notices carry no fines, as long as the company agrees within 15 days to remove the items. However, there is no deadline for stores to take the products off the shelves. They must do so “as soon as practicable,” and the state rarely follows up to make sure that it happens.
“Most companies, we send a notice and things do get better,” said Deputy Attorney General Harrison Pollak. “With Rainbow, it’s been a little more difficult.”
The state has measures in place to penalize repeat offenders, but only if they rack up enough violations involving the same suppliers within a short time. Under the regulations, even if a store had problems every week, but with different vendors, it would not be considered a repeat offender.
No company – not even Rainbow, whose 25 violations make it by far the state’s worst offender – has amassed enough violations to warrant a fine.
Pollak said retailers incur other negative consequences, however.
“There are costs associated with taking corrective action, including pulling noncompliant jewelry, and with adverse publicity,” he said.
Slipping through the cracks
Although the Center for Environmental Health and the Department of Toxic Substances Control often spot-check stores, they do not ensure that every tainted item gets removed.
California Watch found that items can slip through the cracks.
After the state issued its most extensive warning in June, citing 16 items with high lead levels, Rainbow assured regulators that it had removed all the tainted jewelry. But that didn’t happen.
One of the items cited in the state’s violation notice, a pink heart-shaped pendant, was found by inspectors in a Rainbow store in Kentucky – a day after the company’s attorney said all the jewelry was off the shelves.
A day later, California Watch reporters bought the same pendant in Richmond. A lab test revealed the metal backing of the pendant was 23 percent lead.
“They were pulled nationally,” Margulies said. “It shouldn’t have been on the shelf.”
Rainbow directed its stores by e-mail to remove the items and return them to its New York warehouse, said Margulies, adding that the retailer sent automated e-mails every day to stores that reported the products in their inventory.
Margulies said Rainbow has since voluntarily removed from across the country the six jewelry products that California Watch found contained unlawful levels of lead. One of those items was the subject of the state’s most recent warning notice in September.
Neither Rainbow nor the attorney general’s office would disclose how many units had been sold of the tainted jewelry. But in a letter to the attorney general’s office, Margulies described the quantity as only a “handful” of each item.
The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission maintains an online list of children’s jewelry it has recalled for lead. The recalls typically involve the jewelry maker, said Scott Wolfson, an agency spokesman. But retailers that carried the item must display posters in their stores to inform customers, he said.
To date, none of those recalls have included jewelry at Rainbow, meaning the firm is under no obligation to warn customers.
Margulies said he didn’t think a warning for the items would be necessary because “there’s no reason to believe that they are in any way dangerous to anybody.”
The federal commission has contacted Rainbow about many of the items in the June violation notice, he said.
“Rainbow is working with the California attorney general and (the commission), and if either determines that additional corrective action is needed, Rainbow will cooperate,” he said.
Child’s death sparks recall, concerns
Starting in 2004, customers who bought children’s shoes with the Reebok label were treated to a special gift – a metal bracelet and a heart-shaped charm engraved with the brand name. In February 2006, 4-year-old Jarnell Brown swallowed the jewelry.
Vomiting and complaints of a “sore tummy” landed Jarnell in a Minneapolis emergency room. His condition quickly worsened. Four days later, he was dead.
Tests revealed that the charm he swallowed was 99 percent lead. The toxic metal had stopped the flow of blood to his brain, doctors concluded.
In 2008, the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act set federal regulations for children’s jewelry. Cases of lead in jewelry have been falling ever since.
“The law made a big difference,” said Charles Margulis, a spokesman for the Center for Environmental Health. By 2009, about 96 percent of jewelry tested by the center complied with the law. By the end of next year, he said, “I would be surprised if we were still finding violations like Rainbow.”
Brent Cleaveland, executive director of the Fashion Jewelry and Accessories Trade Association, said the issue is being overblown.
“We believe our products are safe,” he said, adding that he has been in the jewelry industry for 40 years, handling raw materials like lead. “I’m a healthy man.”
Cleaveland’s group represents more than 225 manufacturers, suppliers and retailers, including Rainbow. He said jewelry makers like working with lead because it is less expensive and more pliable than other metals.
“There is melanoma, but no one’s outlawed the sun,” he said. “Prudent, reasonable use of whatever product you’re dealing with is warranted.”
California requires a manufacturer or supplier to certify that jewelry complies with state law. But jewelry can change hands many times before reaching store shelves. And that can lead to a murky trail of accountability.
That is exactly what happened with the star-shaped pendant labeled both “kids” and “lead free.”
California attorney general's officeThis star shaped pendant sold at Rainbow was labeled "lead free" but contained high lead levels.
The pendants were imported from China by a New York firm that sold the items to a distributor, which eventually sold them to Rainbow. No one took responsibility for labeling the jewelry.
“Rainbow did not label this product as lead free, or review or pre-approve the labeling of the product,” Margulies, the retailer’s attorney, said in his letter to the state. “We had no reason to believe that there might be lead in the product.”
When the pendants entered the country more than a year ago, the importer, Atlas Fashion Jewelry Corp., said the jewelry came with no labels. The company would not identify its overseas supplier. A salesman for Atlas, Kay Hu, said the company affixed stickers with the word “adult” and sold the jewelry to another New York vendor, Charming Accessory Unlimited Inc.
Charming’s manager, Eric Huang, said he did not know if the jewelry arrived with labels. But he insisted that his company did not label the items, either. Huang said his firm obtained “only like a few dozen” of the pendants in either 2008 or 2009 and sold them soon after to Rainbow.
Somehow along the way, however, the “adult” label was replaced with “kids” and “lead free.”
The state bought and tested the star-shaped pendant this summer and found that the clasp was 80 percent lead.
Notification process slow
The importer of the lead-tainted pendants was one of the last to learn of a problem with the jewelry.
California attorney general's officeThe same pendant was also labeled "kids." But high levels of lead would make it dangerous for children.
Atlas had not been alerted about any lead risks involving the pendant by either Rainbow or Charming, Hu said. Instead, the importer found out about the high lead results weeks later from federal inspectors.
California does not require that retailers track products beyond their immediate vendor. Nor does the state require that companies test jewelry. However, vendors must display a certification of compliance on jewelry shipments or packaging, or provide the certificate if requested.
But neither Charming nor Rainbow made such a request, Hu said.
Rainbow’s contracts with its vendors state that products must comply with lead regulations.
“Rainbow cannot shoulder the entire responsibility to ensure that the vendors supply only compliant product,” Margulies said in his letter to the state. “We are simply not sure what more Rainbow can reasonably be required to do under the circumstances.”
Cleaveland, of the jewelry trade group, said many importers ask for certification before bringing jewelry into the country and voluntarily test the items once they arrive.
Rainbow does not routinely test the jewelry it orders, Margulies said. It has responded to each violation notice that it “continues to share the attorney general’s concern about lead in these products.”
Margulies said the retailer is “increasing its efforts” to ensure that its vendors are aware of the lead limits their products must meet. But, he said, Rainbow is “not dictating how they comply with the standards.”