Study Finds ‘Elevated’ Lead Levels in Off-Price Fashion Accessories

Leather and faux leather handbags, wallets, shoes and belts from popular off-price retailers can harbor “shockingly” high levels of lead, a carcinogen and reproductive toxicant that can pose permanent and irreversible harm to babies and children, a new study warned this week.

Over the past decade, the Center for Environmental Health (CEH) has sent Burlington, Ross Dress for Less, Marshalls, Nordstrom Rack and T.J. Maxx nearly 500 notifications—300 to the first two stores alone—alerting them of the problem. And while the rest of the fashion industry has shifted away from selling lead-containing accessories, the California-based watchdog group said, these discounters have continued to do so.

In 2022 alone, more than 25 percent of 1,950 leather and faux leather goods purchased from Burlington and Ross stores in San Diego, Los Angeles and the Bay Area and tested by the CEH contained elevated lead levels exceeding 300 parts per million, the Consumer Product Safety Commission’s legal limit for the heavy metal in children’s products at the time the organization posted its notifications. (It has since fallen to 100 ppm.)

“Our sampling was done by investigators who specifically targeted products they suspected could contain lead based on prior sampling and testing experience,” the report said. “These results do not reflect a random sampling by an average consumer shopping at Ross or Burlington. Nevertheless, Ross and Burlington’s continued sale of this many lead-containing products is concerning.”

Brands that clocked the highest levels of lead included Atalina, Andiamo and CL by Laundry for footwear, Dollhouse, Elizabeth & Nicole and Pink Label Vintage Collection for belts and <3 Vegan, S and Park Ave for handbags.

None of the big-box outlets responded to a request for comment.

Health experts agree that there is no “safe” level for lead, which can rub off from products onto hands and enter bodies through the mouth. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, lead can travel through the blood and accumulate in bones. Depending on the extent of exposure, it can wreak damage on the nervous, immune, reproductive and cardiovascular systems, as well as interfere with kidney function.

The CEH’s work with anti-lead advocacy goes back years. In 2010 and 2011, the organization used California’s Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act, better known as Proposition 65, to negotiate legal settlements with 200 firms, which agreed to eliminate all but trace quantities of lead in the leather and faux leather accessories that they manufactured, distributed for resale or sold under a private label. Since then, the CEH has regularly tested products from those companies to verify those promises.

“With each year of testing, we noticed that lead levels in fashion accessories seemed to decline,” it said. “In fact, it became more difficult over the years to find fashion accessories sold at big-box, department, and fast fashion retailers in California with any detectable lead, a testament to the overwhelming success of the public health-focused agreements we reached with large companies and their commitment to remove lead from fashion accessories.”

At the same time, it found that the problem persisted with off-priced retailers, which, as McKinsey & Co. once described them, operate on a business model that “relies on the purchase of overproduced, or excess… goods at a lower price to sell to consumers at a discounted rate.” Burlington and Ross, in particular cater to lower-income consumers, the CEH said. Compared to TJX Companies’ better-off customer base, the people who shop at Ross and Burlington typically report below-average income levels, according to a 2018 Coresight study.

Many of the stores are also located in communities that already face disproportionate environmental, health and socioeconomic pressures, per census data. This, the CEH added, makes the situation even more problematic, since “working or shopping at these stores should not put people at greater risk of exposure to toxic chemicals.”

In 2022, the organization found that more than half of the lead-containing accessories that it purchased at Burlington and Ross had Proposition 65 warnings, though some of them were “hidden” in small print on tags inside handbags or on the soles of shoes. It also observed that the interior lining of faux leather handbags and wallets more frequently contained lead than the exterior surface. Ersatz leather derived from PVC or polyurethane also generally contained more lead than their cowhide counterparts.

“Burlington, Ross, TJX, and any other off-price retailers are obligated to protect their customers and workers,” the report said. “These multi-billion dollar companies have attempted to implement chemical management policies in recent years (Burlington, 2022, TJX, 2021), but we were still finding lead-containing fashion accessories sold by them. They need to prioritize getting lead off of their store shelves, by not only adopting stricter chemical management policies, but also enforcing compliance of them and ensuring their effectiveness.”


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