Lead-tainted jewelry found on retailer’s shelves despite state warnings

Photo by Mandy Hofmockel/California Watch

By Joanna Lin and Mandy Hofmockel

This story originally appeared in California Watch

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 issued its fourth warning in the span of 13 months in June, 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.

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.

Not all retailers test products before stocking their 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. And no one bothers to trace the jewelry to its source.
  • Customers who buy tainted jewelry are left in the dark. Rainbow has notinformed its customers that it sold jewelry with high levels of lead, and California law does not require the company to do so.

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.

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. 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.

Although the chain would not say precisely how much tainted jewelry was sold, the company’s attorney, Jeffrey Margulies, said in a letter to the state that the distribution was limited to a “handful” of each item. He described high levels of lead in the retailer’s jewelry as “an isolated problem.”

Still, Margulies added: “They’re thinking about not selling jewelry – they actually are.”

Tougher restrictions

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.

The state attorney general’s office, which is the primary enforcer of California’s lead regulations, has relied on the Oakland-based Center for Environmental Health to perform weekly lead screenings.

When the nonprofit center finds high levels of lead, it sends 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 makes 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.

Slipping 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 the jewelry.

But one of the items cited in the state’s violation notice, a pink heart-shaped pendant, was found by inspectors at a Rainbow store in Kentucky – a day after the company’s attorney said the jewelry was no longer available.

A day later, California Watch reporters bought the same pendant in Richmond. A lab test revealed the metal backing was 23 percent lead.

“It shouldn’t have been on the shelf,” Margulies said.

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.

Murky accountability

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 pendantlabeledboth “kids” and “lead free.”

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.

When the pendants entered the country more than a year ago, the importer, Atlas Fashion Jewelry Corp., said the jewelry came without 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 2008 or 2009 and sold them soon after to Rainbow. Rainbow’s attorney also said the retailer did not label the jewelry, adding that the company expects its vendors to comply with safety regulations.

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.

Atlas, the company that imported the jewelry, said it had not been alerted about any lead risks involving the pendant by either Rainbow or Charming. Instead, the importer found out about the high lead results weeks later from federal inspectors.

This story was edited by Mark Katches. It was copy edited by Nikki Werking.

California Watch, the state’s largest investigative reporting team, is a project of the independent, nonprofit Center for Investigative Reporting.