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Does Your Cheap Jewelry Contain Lead?

Scouring street fairs, flea markets and discount shops for cheap, chunky costume jewelry is kinda our thing. As a sometime sidewalk sale seller and Etsy store owner, we’ve even sold thread earrings made in Brazil and Peru. 

Street fair jewelry is cheap, but is if safe?/Photo by Tracy E. Hopkins
Lately, however, we’ve noticed the label "lead compliant" on some of our fashion jewelry finds. But what does that mean? To get the skinny on lead compliance and what we should look for and avoid when shopping for budget costume jewelry, Everything She Wants asked two jewelry experts/medical doctors – Alexis Gopal and Matilde Parente -- for their tips.

Everything She Wants: What does it mean when jewelry says, "lead compliant?"  

Alexis Gopal: The term "lead compliant" means that the piece of jewelry conforms to the standards set forth by the Consumer Product Safety Information Act, which was signed into law in 2008. It set limits on the amount of lead in children's products, including jewelry. Over the years, the limit has been lowered to 100 ppm on children's goods made after August 14, 2011. The limit is slightly higher for adults.

ESW: If a piece of costume jewelry doesn't say "lead compliant," does that mean it's unsafe?  

Alexis Gopal: If the piece is not labeled, it is impossible to tell unless it is tested. A lead swab test, found at most hardware stores, may tell you if there is lead in the surface of the product, but not beneath the surface coating. The only way to know for sure is to have it analyzed by a lab.

The Ecology Center, based in Michigan, recently conducted a study in which over 50% of the costume jewelry pieces they tested contained unsafe levels of lead, cadmium and nickel. Unless ingested, metals generally do not pose a risk, with a couple of exceptions. Many people have a contact allergy with nickel. Also, many pieces of costume jewelry are sprayed with a brominated flame retardant, which can cause hormonal imbalances and other health issues when absorbed through the skin.

Me shopping at a street fair./Tracy E. Hopkins
ESW: Are there any health risks associated with buying cheap jewelry off the street and at flea markets?  

Alexis Gopal: There is probably an even higher risk of buying contaminated jewelry at these venues, because they are less likely to be regulated, even selling black market items.

Matilde Parente: Costume jewelry vendors, including those at street fairs or selling out of their homes, all fall under the new environmental restrictions exemplified by California's very specific and strict metal-restrictive laws. But many of these vendors do not know what their jewelry is made of, or may not care to apply due diligence in their commerce. On-the-fly vendors may be purchasing wholesale from countries which do not place restrictions on the sale of heavy metal-containing jewelry or consumables.

ESW: What's a rule of thumb shoppers should use when shopping for costume/fashion jewelry?

Alexis Gopal: Try to purchase from a reputable vendor who is known to comply with the current regulations.  Be careful with vintage jewelry, it's impossible to know it's lead content. 

Matilde Parente: [As a general rule] avoid purchases of costume jewelry for children or pregnant women.  [But] If you decide to purchase costume jewelry for children or pregnant
women, avoid metal-containing pieces. Choose textiles, leather or natural products such as bracelets made from natural fiber.

ESW: Is it better to stick to "real" jewelry, for instance jewelry made with silver, gold and precious stones?  

Alexis Gopal: If you can afford it, yes. Precious metals (karat gold, sterling and fine silver, platinum), and gemstones are exempt from testing provided they weren't treated or changed in ways that require the addition of lead. 

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