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Store Sells Lead-Tainted Jewelry Despite Repeated Warnings From State's Attorney

Even after four warnings in 13 months, inspectors found products with illegal levels of lead on the shelves of Rainbow Apparel stores.

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. 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. 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.