Update: The health department says it mistakenly reported that the $6 Hello Kitty necklace sold at Target had high levels of lead. Read the new story here.
Baltimore health inspectors found elevated levels of lead in inexpensive children's jewelry in two Canton stores last month, highlighting continuing concern over the potential for lead poisoning from a source parents might not expect.
The city Health Department found the lead in a $6 Hello Kitty necklace sold at Target and in a $3, six-piece earring set sold at Five Below, both at Canton Crossing.
"When we normally think about lead exposure, we think about lead in housing," said Baltimore Health Commissioner Dr. Leana Wen. "But we want to make sure parents are not inadvertently exposing their children to hazards that may be found in their homes."
Lead, once a common additive in paints, gasoline and other items, has long been known to permanently damage the brains of children who ingest it, and the U.S. government has set strict restrictions on its use. Even low amounts of lead exposure can cause lower IQ scores, problems in school, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, and deficits in vocabulary, fine motor skills, reaction time and hand-eye coordination. Large amounts can cause death.
In 2011, Congress lowered the limit of lead allowed in children's products to 100 parts per million, down from 600 ppm set in 2009. The limit does not apply to internal parts of children's products and electronic devices.
The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission encourages parents not to let children swallow, suck on or chew jewelry.
Five Below, a teen- and preteen-oriented store with items under $5, released a statement saying that the company immediately removed the items from shelves and discussed the situation with the manufacturer.
"At Five Below, safety is of utmost concern to the company, and we take all product concerns seriously," the statement said. "We have numerous measures in place when working with suppliers to ensure that our products meet all safety guidelines. ... We will continue to investigate."
The city Health Department has been randomly testing the lead content of children's jewelry since 2007, finding about 50 violations in 350 tests. In 2013, inspectors found an inexpensive multicolored bangle bracelet for sale at a store on Liberty Heights Avenue that had lead levels of 2,500 ppm, or 25 times above the limit.
The latest items were found June 12 during a random inspection and sent to an independent lab for testing. The city has now banned the sale of all similar items by the same manufacturers.
Though the U.S. banned most lead in consumer items in the 1970s, Wen said other countries do not have such standards, leaving imported jewelry and other items at risk.
Emily Scarr, the director of the Maryland Public Interest Research Group, said blame lies with Congress and federal regulators for failing to enact stricter standards for imports.
"I think some retailers are doing what they can to make sure products are safer, but really it shouldn't be up to retailers to have to test all their inventory," Scarr said. "This is a good reminder that there's more that Maryland and the federal government could be doing."
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A bill to update the Toxic Substances Control Act, which banned lead from paint, gasoline and other sources in 1976, is working its way through Congress and would empower the Environmental Protection Agency to more closely monitor toxic chemicals in consumer products. The decades-old law has been criticized as outdated and inadequate.
Scarr said her group advises against shopping at discount stores because it believes there is a greater risk of buying lead- or cadmium-tainted items.
"Lower-budget stores like dollar stores let products fall through the cracks, so we advise consumers not to shop there," she said. "The cheap stores are always the worst, which for some people is a big concern because it disproportionately affects low-income and communities of color."
Wen said the Health Department strongly recommends parents test children for lead exposure with their pediatrician.
"Lead is invisible to the eye, it has no smell, kids can put lead paint chips or other objects with lead in their mouths and become poisoned in time," she said. "People with lead poisoning don't show signs of being sick; the only way to find out is to have your child's blood be tested."