Lead tainted product found at Calif. stores

October 2, 2010 7:22:16 PM PDT
A state law that has been so successful in removing jewelry tainted with lead from store shelves may be showing some cracks. An investigation by our media partner California Watch shows there has been little follow-up after violations were found and practically no monetary penalties imposed. The group is a non-profit project for the Center for Investigative Reporting.

Behind a secured gate in an office basement in Oakland are boxes of lead tainted products. They were tested by the Center for Environmental Health.

Any product found with a high amount of lead almost always results in a lawsuit by the center and the state or a violation notice from attorney general Jerry Brown.

"Companies have been responding fairly quickly and we think thoroughly to the notices that we sent them," Deputy Attorney General Harrison Pollak said.

Rainbow apparel is one such company that received numerous notices. It has 35 outlets in California including some under the "5-7-9" name.

In June, the Center for Environmental Health tested several pieces of jewelry and it found 16 pieces with excess levels at Rainbow stores. The clasp on one of the necklaces contained 80 percent lead, but the label says "lead free."

"People could easily purchase this thinking that it would be safe for their children," Carolyn Cox from the Center for Environmental Health said.

Lead poisoning can lead to serious health problems and has been connected to behavioral problems and learning disabilities in children.

Rainbow promptly announced it would remove all 16 pieces cited in the June notice for sale nationwide, but Joanna Lin of California Watch found that wasn't the case.

"When the state says this necklace has lead, take it off your shelves, none of them go back [to the store] and make sure it happens. So I think that's a real problem of making sure the compliance happens," she said.

California Watch decided to do its own spot check and it found a heart-shaped pendant with high levels of lead still for sale at Rainbow.

"We bought it on July 2 and Rainbow found out about it on June 24. Even though the state doesn't require it to take it off in a certain amount of time, it just says do it as soon as possible. Rainbow had already said that it did," Lin said.

The state of Kentucky also found it for sale at Rainbow stores there. Rainbow says both the state of Kentucky and California Watch purchased the heart-shaped necklace before it had a chance to pull them.

In all, California Watch tested 30 pieces purchased from Rainbow on July 2 and six had lead levels above legal limits.

"I think it's clear that their quality control, the specification of their vendors and all the things that go into making sure that the product that they are selling is of good quality, just haven't been working at Rainbow," Cox said.

Rainbow says it has been using an XRF gun, "to screen incoming jewelry for lead since early August and has rejected several shipments...Rainbow expects and contractually obligates its vendors to provide products that comply with California law."

But this wasn't Rainbow's first violation. In all, there have been five violations in 16 months involving 25 pieces of jewelry. Despite the repeat violations, there have been no additional fines levied against Rainbow since it agreed to a $25,000 settlement in 2006.

"I think the law is a good law. If there's a flaw there isn't a monetary penalty attached to the violations," Cox said.

"If we found jewelry that had excess lead, we could contact the company and they would take immediate action to get it off the shelves again. We were more focused on that than collecting a monetary payment," Pollak said.

Brown also sent a notice of violation to one of Rainbow's suppliers, Almar Sales. It has not returned our call for comment.

California Watch is also sponsoring free lead screenings Wednesday, October 6 at De Colores Head Start from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. and again on Sunday, Oct. 10 at the Richmond Flea Market from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.


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