Lead Lurking in Purses, Wallets and Sandals

NBC Bay Area tests products in local stores for lead levels

By Vicky Nguyen, Julie Putnam and Jeremy Carroll
|  Tuesday, Jul 31, 2012  |  Updated 8:12 AM PDT
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Investigative reporter Vicky Nguyen looks into the labels warning shoppers about lead and other cancer-causing chemicals in their favorite accessories. 07/31/12 - 01:12AM PT

Investigative reporter Vicky Nguyen looks into the labels warning shoppers about lead and other cancer-causing chemicals in their favorite accessories. 07/31/12 - 01:12AM PT

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Women wear and touch them daily: shoes, purses and wallets.

But do we know what’s lurking in the accessories we love?

Oakland’s Center for Environmental Health tested hundreds of handbags and wallets from popular Bay Area stores and found lead in purses and wallets sold at one out of four retail stores it visited, ranging from discount retailers to high end department stores.

The consumer group said it tested 300 purses and wallets. CEH found lead in 43 of the products.

While there is no federal standard for how much lead is allowed in these items, hundreds of retailers pledged to limit lead to 300ppm in their products in a 2010 legal agreement with CEH. However, the report found many of them were violating their own standards.

“Lead is notorious because it impacts a child’s brain and they are not able to learn as well as they would have if they hadn’t been exposed to lead,” said Caroline Cox, research director for the Center for Environmental Health.

“All day long you’re carrying your purse, opening it, closing it. Every time you touch it, a small amount of lead gets on your fingers. Imagine yourself eating a potato chip or putting on lip balm, that lead is going into you,” said Cox.

Click the slideshow to the left to view the top 10 purses and wallets the CEH report listed as having the highest amounts of lead.

Meanwhile, warning tags are showing up on handbags and sandals in stores in the Bay Area in accordance with Prop 65, the California law that requires businesses to notify customers about “significant chemicals in the products they purchase.”

San Jose shopper Charlotte Lazar contacted NBC Bay Area after seeing the labels on purses and sandals at DD’s Discounts, owned by Ross Stores. 

The labels read, “This product may contain lead, a chemical known to the state of California to cause cancer, birth defects or other reproductive harm.”

Lazar said it worries her that shoppers may not even notice the small warning labels, “You have a lot of people that buy these things and they have no idea what they’re doing they don’t know about it,” said Lazar. “It says do not allow children to mouth or chew the sole of the shoe,” said Lazar. “I saw that and I went, ‘Oh my, that’s not good.’”

NBC Bay Area wanted to know if these items really contained lead. We bought five purses from DD’s, and a pair of sandals from Big Lots, all of which had warning tags attached.

We took them to certified lead assessor Chip Prokop of Indoor Air Sciences. Using a Niton XRF (X-Ray Florescence) instrument, Model Xlp 300A, he tested our items for lead.

Three of the five bags tested positive for lead in amounts varying from 200 to 550 parts per million. A pair of sandals tested registered at 700 parts per million.  Two of the bags had no detectable lead levels.

Cox says companies sometimes blanket all of their products with Prop. 65 warnings, just to ensure they comply with the law, but the labels don’t tell people what chemical or how much of it they may be exposed to. She says  the labeling can be confusing for consumers.

“It doesn’t help anybody; we strongly discourage any company from [overwarning],” said Cox. “The best way to solve the problem is to just take the problem chemical out and that way you don’t need the warning.”

Cox says neither DD’s Discounts or Big Lots has agreed to limit lead in their products, but she says CEH is constantly working to get more companies to join in the 2010 legal agreement.

We asked both stores if they were aware these products are being sold in their stores, and whether they test their products for lead.

Ross Stores, the parent company of DD’s, provided a statement to NBC Bay Area saying the company is looking into the issue and it will continue selling the items in question.

Big Lots did not respond to our requests for comment.

So why are these products still being sold? In part because there are no federal guidelines for how much lead is allowed in something like a purse or a shoe.

“Even though the CPSC regulations don’t currently extend to those handbags, they probably should,” said toxicologist Dr. Siva Ayyar.

He says there’s no scientific agreement on exactly how much is too much when it comes to lead exposure, and that ingesting lead or breathing in lead dust is thought to be more dangerous than just touching it, but, “If you can avoid it you should. There’s no safe exposure level.”

For shopper Charlotte Lazar, even a trace amount of lead is too much. “I think we just have to be as careful as we can,” she said.

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