Wal-Mart, Macy's, other retailers agree to cut lead in purses, belts and shoes

Responding to lawsuit, big retailers to cut lead in purses, belts and shoes
Wal-Mart, Sears, Target, Macy's and other major U.S. retailers are agreeing to follow standards expected to lower the level of lead -- a poisonous metal with potentially widespread toxic health effects -- in handbags and other fashion accessories.

How does lead get into fashion goods in the first place? From vinyl and other "faux" leather materials, or from pigments used to color products, says California's Center for Environmental Health, the advocacy group that filed and settled the lawsuit including the new standards. Many of the 41 retailers named in the suit, in which none admit to any wrongdoing, agreed to apply the standards to belts and footwear as well.

"We expect that every company that makes, imports, distributes or sells purses and other accessories will join these leading companies in meeting these health standards for their consumers," the center's executive director, Michael Green, said in a statement.

While there are federal limits on lead levels in children's products, there are no such rules for handbags. Lead can be toxic if eaten in large amounts by young children and can also cause serious health problems in adults, including kidney and nerve damage.

CEH says lead exposure has been linked to health issues including higher rates of infertility among women, strokes and high blood pressure, and could also affect fetal development if the mother is exposed during pregnancy.

As part of the settlement, the retailers agreed to fully implement the lead level standards by Dec. 1, 2011. The companies also paid a total of $1.7 million to California and CEH that includes a fund to be used by CEH to monitor compliance.

In reacting to the settlement, Target spokeswoman Beth Hanson told Consumer Ally that the safety of its products is a "top priority for us and we're always looking for ways to enhance the safety of our brand products." Target no longer carries the products listed in the lawsuit.

While not part of the settlement, Wal-Mart released a statement saying it plans to follow the standards. Wal-Mart says it has "been monitoring the situation and is working with suppliers regarding the affected products. Wal-Mart will be adopting the lead limits outlined in the settlement agreement for the covered product categories."

Retailer Sears/Kmart referred back to the settlement and declined to comment further. Macy's referred questions to the settlement attorney representing the retailers.

CEH Communications Director Charles Margulis said consumers wanting to know if their current accessories contain lead can do several things.

Home lead tests are available at home improvement stores. Those tests typically use a swab to swipe across the product being tested. "They are not completely reliable because [the swab] doesn't get below the surface," Margulis tells Consumer Ally.

CEH is also willing to test purses for free at their San Francisco Bay area office. The purse isn't damaged by the testing.

"Our test is a screening for high lead levels. If the result is negative, folks can be assured the purse isn't a lead hazard," Margulis says. "If we get a positive result, folks then need to decide if that's enough for them to discard the purse."

More in-depth testing can be done at a lab, which costs about $50, he says.

The retailers who have signed on to the settlement are: Acme Accessories, AIJJ (Rainbow, 5-7-9 stores), Aldo, American Eagle, Bag Bazaar, Camuto Consulting (Vince Camuto brand), Coldwater Creek, Diesel usa, DSW Shoe Warehouse, eBags, Express, Fantasia Accessories, Forever 21, Fossil, Guess, JC Penney, Jones Apparel (Nine West), Kohl's, Limited, Liz Claiborne (Juicy Couture, Kate Spade), Macy's/Bloomingdales, Mango NY, Metropark USA, Michael Kohrs, Mondani, Pacific Worldwide, Phillips-Van Heusen/Calvin Klein, Ray Enterprises (Hobo Intl), Rosetti, Saks Inc, San Diego Hat, Sanrio (Hello Kitty), Sears/Kmart, Steve Madden, Target, The Dress Barn, TJX Co (TJ Maxx), Urban Brands/Ashley Stewart, Victoria Secret/Bath & Body Works and Viewmark USA.

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