In the scramble for last-minute stocking stuffers, shiny necklaces, bracelets and rings may seem like the answer to harried parents' prayers...

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In the scramble for last-minute stocking stuffers, shiny necklaces, bracelets and rings may seem like the answer to harried parents’ prayers.

But laboratory tests commissioned by The Seattle Times reveal that some of the baubles for sale in local stores are tainted with dangerous amounts of lead.

The dolphin charms on one bracelet-ring combination were one-third lead, containing 330,000 parts per million of the toxic metal. That’s more than 500 times the level considered safe for children’s jewelry by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC). An angel pendant described as “genuine European crystal” was actually 15 percent lead by weight, or 150,000 ppm.

Most of the items with high lead levels were sold at dollar stores, but one came from an upscale shop at Northgate Mall.

The Seattle Times test results add to growing evidence that a federal crackdown on tainted kids’ jewelry has failed to stanch the influx of toxic trinkets, mostly from China.

Since a 4-year-old Oregon boy nearly died after swallowing a lead-laden vending-machine trinket in 2003, the CPSC has orchestrated the recall of more than 170 million pieces of children’s jewelry.

The hazards posed by leaded jewelry have been largely overshadowed by the recent uproar over lead-tainted toys. But the concentrations of lead in toys are relatively low compared to some of the trinkets marketed to kids, said CPSC spokesman Scott Wolfson.

Last year, a Minneapolis boy died of lead poisoning after swallowing a charm that came with a pair of Reebok sneakers — and which was nearly pure lead.

“If you look at the severity of the problem, if you look at the risk to children, you begin to see that the danger with metal jewelry is even higher than that of toys with lead paint,” Wolfson said.

Seven out of 35 items tested by The Seattle Times had lead levels over the 600 parts-per-million limit proposed by the CPSC in a draft rule.

“There is a lot more out there,” said Jeffrey Weidenhamer, a chemist at Ashland University in Ohio who has tested hundreds of items and filed more than 90 complaints with the CPSC.

The commission has acted on only three of those complaints. And despite the furor over lead in toys and jewelry, the agency has not fined a single company.

“They are basically doing nothing,” said Steven Gilbert, director of the Institute for Neurotoxicity and Neurological Disorders in Seattle.

A risk to adults, too

Lead often is used in jewelry in place of more expensive materials, particularly in China.

A lead necklace that simply touches the skin is not dangerous. The metal is only harmful if swallowed or inhaled.

“Kids suck and chew on their jewelry all the time,” said Nicole Thomsen, who investigates lead-poisoning cases for Public Health — Seattle & King County. Fingering a metal chain can also release tiny particles that can be breathed in or ingested.

Children absorb lead much more readily than adults, and their developing brains and nervous systems can be damaged by even low levels of the metal. New evidence links elevated blood lead levels to attention-deficit disorder and other behavioral problems.

In the past 10 years, about 450,000 American children have been diagnosed with lead poisoning. Washington reports nearly 1,000 cases since 1993, but the state’s testing rate is one of the lowest in the nation.

In adults, lead appears to raise the risk of heart attack, stroke and kidney disease, said Dr. Bruce Lanphear, director of Cincinnati Children’s Environmental Health Center and a top lead researcher.

“There is no safe level of lead.”

Relying on suppliers

Saad Ali, whose family owns a Dollar Express store on Aurora Avenue North, was upset to learn that three pieces of jewelry sold there, including the angel-pendant necklace, had high levels of lead in The Seattle Times test.

He pulled the remaining stock from the shelves but said he doesn’t know how to prevent such problems in the future. Small retailers can’t afford to test every item they sell, he said, and rely on suppliers to provide safe merchandise.

“How do we stop it and make sure kids don’t get sick and die?” Ali asked.

The federal government doesn’t require importers or distributors to test jewelry or toys for lead and other toxic chemicals. Many companies have launched their own testing programs, including DM Merchandising, Inc., the Elmhurst, Ill., wholesaler that shipped the tainted jewelry to Ali’s store.

Myles Marks, DM’s director of purchasing, provided reports from a laboratory in China that certified that two items in which The Seattle Times found high lead concentrations — an “I love you mom” necklace and a guardian-angel key chain — fell below advisory limits for lead. The angel necklace was discontinued two years ago, he said.

Earlier this year, the company recalled 86,400 “Ultra Gear” bracelets after CPSC tests found high lead levels.

“We’ve been as proactive as we can as far as testing,” Marks said. But he said the company has no way to verify testing results from China. DM plans to buy a $40,000 handheld X-ray analyzer to screen shipments.

Kelly Smith, an owner of the Fuego boutique in Northgate Mall, said the company has directed all its vendors to comply with the 600 ppm limit for children’s jewelry. A metal bead from a $5.99 necklace purchased at the store contained 58,000 ppm lead.

Thy Dang, owner of the Dollar $ Plus store on Martin Luther King Jr. Way, said she was unaware of the concern about lead in children’s jewelry and will contact her supplier.

Regarding the three tainted items purchased in her store — including the bracelet and ring with dolphin charms — she questioned whether a scorpion necklace and a Christmas-charm bracelet would be considered children’s jewelry.

The line is blurry, and the CPSC hasn’t developed guidelines yet. There are no rules limiting lead in adult jewelry.

Many recalled items appear to be marketed as much to young adults as children, including nearly 600,000 metal key chains. Kirkland-based Celebrate Express, Inc., which sells party supplies online and through a retail store, recalled nearly 200,000 “Gigantic Gemstone Ring” party favors last year because of lead.

“It can be really hard to tell whether something is for adults or kids,” said Caroline Cox, of the Center for Environmental Health, in Oakland, Calif. “I know that every 5-year-old girl likes to wear her mom’s jewelry.”

Standard is voluntary

Cox’s organization helped push through a 600 ppm limit on lead in children’s jewelry in California by suing more than 70 retailers, including Everett-based Zumiez, Inc., which specializes in skateboard gear. Under a settlement, Zumiez and the other companies agreed to phase out sales of most lead-containing jewelry — including for adults.

Several other states and cities have adopted lead limits for children’s jewelry and toys, but Washington has not.

The current federal standard is voluntary. It’s a two-step approach that first measures total lead content. Items with more than 600 ppm are then tested again to see if dangerous levels of the metal are likely to leach out. Companies can only be fined if they fail to report findings of high lead.

But CPSC spokesman Wolfson admits that expecting the industry to comply with voluntary guidelines “has not worked so far.”

The proposed new rule would eliminate the leach test and simply make it illegal to sell children’s jewelry with more than 600 ppm lead.

Other proposals in Congress would push the acceptable level down to 200 ppm or less and require companies to test and certify toys and kids’ jewelry before offering it for sale.

“We need to be catching these things before they get on the shelf, not after kids are playing with them,” Cox said.

Sandi Doughton: 206-464-2491 or sdoughton@seattletimes.com

Seattle Times reporter Mike Carter contributed to this report.