As a mother, I feel like it’s a never-ending task to keep my children safe and healthy. And I often get frustrated at how hard that seems to be sometimes. Usually it’s in the realm of food, where you need to read labels super carefully and be hyper-aware of marketing. I’ve often said it’s tough to be an American consumer, or at least, very tiring. And sadly, this now extends to children’s jewelry. Over these past several years, I have been keeping track of different reports on lead showing up in children’s jewelry. As if moms don’t have enough to worry about! Now, I can’t even buy a trinket without worrying that it’s going to be harmful.
Why use lead in jewelry anyway?
Lead, as you probably know, is not a great substance. It has a long list of bad health effects, ranging from learning disabilities to death. You’ve probably heard of the people in Flint, Michigan drinking lead-tainted water. Or heard the doctors say there’s no safe level of lead. So it’s bad. And because of that, America banned it from paint and gasoline in 1976.
But what about now? Why do we even use it if it’s so bad? Well, using lead in jewelry makes an item heavier, so it seems more substantial (and you pay more for it). It also helps make colors appear brighter and more sparkly. And most importantly, it’s cheap.
But other countries have not banned lead. Like China. And when we import massive amounts of stuff from them, we need to be careful. If you’re a mom like me, you will know it’s really hard to find toys that are made in the United States. 99% of the time, toys are made in China. With jewelry, it’s the same.
A sad story
In 2006, a 4 year old boy from Minnesota died after swallowing a heart shaped trinket that was 99% lead. The poor mother had no idea her child has swallowed it. It wasn’t discovered until it was too late. After his death, researchers randomly tested the same items and found varying levels of lead, from less than 1% to over 60%.
Retailers are in a tough spot here, too. It’s hardly practical to expect them to test every piece in their inventory. And lots of common, big name retailers have been found selling jewelry with high levels of lead. Walmart, Target, Forever 21, and Claire’s have all had to deal with this issue. Unfortunately, until this is fixed on the manufacturing side, the only way to handle is on the retail side.
Target, for example, requires its vendors to label all its crystal jewelry (which may contain lead) as “not intended for children age 14 and under.”
States are stepping up
Since the United States doesn’t have a national regulation for lead content in jewelry, some states are going their own way. In California, a new law went into effect in January of this year that put even tougher limits on lead (as well as cadmium). Their state’s Department of Public Health says metal jewelry is a common cause of lead poisoning.
California has the fifth-largest economy in the world – their laws may change the manufacturing side. Because if a company wants to sell in the U.S., then they need to comply with California’s rules. California also does frequent testing and cites manufacturers and retailers if they find jewelry with too much lead.
New York passed a similar law limiting lead content and requiring labeling. Their law goes into effect in January 2021.
And kudos to Illinois, Since 2010, they have had a labeling law on the books that requires this statement: “WARNING: CONTAINS LEAD. MAY BE HARMFUL IF EATEN OR CHEWED. MAY GENERATE DUST CONTAINING LEAD.”
And our neighbor, Canada, set a new nationwide standard for lead (and cadmium) in jewelry in 2018.
What’s a Mom to do?
Lead has to be tested for. You can’t see it, and you can’t smell it. Kids often don’t show symptoms of lead poisoning until later. And when they do, it’s symptoms like irritability or vomiting, which could mean lots of other things. If you’re at all concerned, have your pediatrician do a blood test for lead. Remember, there is no safe level of lead.
But my #1 tip is just to stay away from cheap jewelry.
Don’t buy jewelry from vending machines.
Don’t buy jewelry at the dollar store.
Don’t buy that super cheap jewelry for your kid’s school fundraiser.
Don’t buy jewelry that comes attached to clothing or shoes.
Know that simply wearing the jewelry is not harmful. When a child sucks on it or swallows it is when it becomes dangerous. If you have young children in your household, and jewelry that’s a size where it can easily go in their mouth, be careful!
Remember the story of the kid in Minnesota who died? He swallowed a piece of jewelry that was attached to a Reebok tennis shoe. My advice: just don’t bring it into your house.
Lead in jewelry resources
If you want more info, check out a couple of other websites:
The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) works together with the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) to prevent lead poisoning. The CPSC will issue recalls of products if their testing finds unsafe levels. They have been issuing recalls for lead in kid’s jewelry since 2004.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) also has a page about lead in toys and jewelry.
I wish the United States had better testing, laws, and labeling for lead in jewelry. I love jewelry! And so do my kids! But I don’t want them to have anything that’s not safe. Right now, there just isn’t a great way for parents to know. So be careful.
This post has been edited and updated since it was originally posted on August 22, 2015.