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CPSC Readies New Lead Regulations for Children's Jewelry, But Will They Be Enough?

Sep 7, 2007 | Parker Waichman LLP, LLP

Lead-tainted children’s jewelry and trinkets have caused serious lead poisoning in at least 7 children in the past 10 years.  Last year, 4-year-old Jarnell Brown of Minneapolis died after swallowing a charm that was 99-percent lead.  Lead is especially prevalent in children’s jewelry and trinkets – items many small children are apt to put in their mouths.  Now, the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) has decided to try to put an end to this problem, and for the first time, the agency has proposed regulating lead in children’s jewelry.

Regulating lead in children’s jewelry is an idea whose time came long ago.  Despite the fact that lead in children’s jewelry started to become worrisome in the 1990s, the CPSC did not take any sort of action until 2003.  Then, the CPSC went from referring to the lead hazard posed by children’s jewelry as “exposure” to “poisoning.”   At that time, the CPSC also changed its stance that lead in jewelry was allowed as long as it wasn’t “accessible” – meaning that it was ok if it was coated by paint or another substance.  Now, the CPSC wants to limit the amount of lead allowed in children’s jewelry to 600 parts per million – the same limits that are placed on paint and other toys. But critics say the proposed CPSC regulates are toothless.  Like most toys the CPSC regulations, testing of jewelry for lead content won’t be mandatory.  And because the law leaves testing to manufacturers, there’s no way to know if they are being truthful.  And many experts say that the level of 600 parts per million is still too much and is based on outdated research, leading to calls to completely revise all of the CPSC’s lead limits.

The use of lead of lead paint in toys has had the public’s attention for much of the summer due to several high-profile toy recalls.  This week, toy-giant Mattel issued its third recall of lead-painted toys in a little over a month.  And lead paint has been behind recalls of Thomas the Tank Engine toy trains, Spongebob Squarepants notebooks, Toys ‘R’ Us coloring cases and other toys this year.  Most of the lead-tainted toys have been imported from China, and several members of Congress have called for testing of all toy imports.  Others want all children’s toys, regardless of origin, subject to mandatory testing.

But critics of the CPSC say that none of these measures will help if the agency doesn’t get more funding and authority.  The CPSC has fewer than 100 inspectors nationwide to monitor store shelves for defective items.  And though the CPSC can impose fines on companies who willfully unleash defective products on American consumers, those fines are capped at under $2 million – pocket change for corporations that rack up millions of dollars in sales each day.

While there is disagreement over solutions to the problem of lead in children’s toys, everyone agrees that lead in jewelry and other toys is a serious threat to children.  About 20,000 children were treated in emergency rooms for swallowing jewelry between 2000 and 2005.   And almost 300,000 US children under 6 have lead levels higher than 10, putting them at risk for brain damage, learning disabilities and other problems.   This is unacceptable, especially because lead has been banned from children’s toys for nearly 30 years.  What impact this lead exposure will have on children is not entirely clear - because lead can linger in the body for years, it could be some times before the consequence of this tragedy are completely apparent.


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