Law will allow fines for all lead-tainted jewelry

October 11, 2011 1:48:24 PM PDT
California has imposed fines on retailers and suppliers that sell lead-tainted jewelry since 2007, but because of a provision in state law, dozens of companies have not had to pay. Come January, under a bill Gov. Jerry Brown signed into law last week, all violations of the state's jewelry regulations will warrant penalties.

The bill, by Sen. Fran Pavley, D-Santa Monica, followed a California Watch investigation that found that more than 200 retailers and suppliers faced virtually no financial penalties for selling jewelry with illegal levels of lead ? even if they did so repeatedly.

Pavley said she anticipates SB 646 will make companies more vigilant in ensuring their jewelry meets state standards.

"I'm confident now that, with all companies facing the threat of financial penalties, we can better safeguard our most vulnerable citizens from the dangers of lead," she said in a statement issued to California Watch.

Children are particularly vulnerable to lead, a neurotoxin that can damage the nervous system, brain, kidneys and reproductive system.

California's original lead-in-jewelry law, which Pavley authored five years ago, created dual enforcement tracks: one for primarily large companies that signed a settlement with the state and one for everyone else.

Companies that signed the settlement agreed to strict lead limits that became the basis of the state's law. They paid $2.6 million to establish a jewelry testing fund and are not fined for violations as long as they promptly remove unlawful jewelry from their stores.

Under limited circumstances, companies can be fined if they incur several violations involving the same supplier in a short time. But no company -- including the subject of California Watch's investigation, Rainbow Apparel, which was cited for 28 violations in 18 months -- has met this threshold.

For all other companies, many of which are too small to join the settlement, violations carry fines of up to $2,500 a day and up to $100,000 if they are intentional.

SB 646 undercuts the very reason companies signed the state's settlement, said Brent Cleaveland, executive director of the Fashion Jewelry and Accessories Trade Association.

Companies settled "so they could become part of the solution and be absolved from having their products in contention," he said. "To go and penalize them every time they find an infraction isn't solving the problem.

"I don't think it will make jewelry any safer," Cleaveland added. For companies that have been cited repeatedly for violations, he said "time and diligence" eventually would bring compliance.

The state attorney general's office has cited dozens of companies for failing to meet state standards. It cited 40 companies as of the end of last year, the most recent date available, and repeat offenders were responsible for the majority of violations, said Lynda Gledhill, spokeswoman for the attorney general.

Those violations rarely resulted in financial penalties. The office has collected less than $25,000 in fines ? all incurred because offenders failed to respond to violations in a timely manner.

The state Department of Toxic Substances Control, which enforces cases outside the settlement, issued violations to 32 companies as of February 2011. It has collected more than $21,000 in fines, said department spokeswoman Charlotte Fadipe.

When SB 646 takes effect Jan. 1, there will be just one track for enforcement. The Department of Toxic Substances Control will have the authority to enforce the state's regulations -- and impose potential fines -- on any jewelry retailer or supplier.

The shift comes as the state's jewelry testing fund nears depletion. The Center for Environmental Health, a watchdog group that on the state's behalf has regularly tested jewelry sold by companies in the settlement, will run its final tests for the fund next summer.

The center will have less capacity to test jewelry after the fund runs out, said Caroline Cox, the group's research director. The toxic substances control department will not necessarily assume the center's role in testing jewelry specifically from companies in the settlement, but it will continue testing under its overall enforcement efforts, Fadipe said.

Although the number of violations has declined dramatically over the course of the fund, the need to test for compliance has not disappeared, Cox said.

"My guess is there will continue to be violations, just because there's a lot of jewelry out there," she said. "There are still problematic jewelry components that ... end up in jewelry, and they end up in stores."

Story courtesy of our media partners at California Watch (A Project of the Center for Investigative Reporting)

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