Toxic Bling: Jewelry Contains Hazardous Levels of Lead and Other Chemicals

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Jewelry sold at popular retailers could contain dangerous levels of cancer-causing toxic chemicals, according to an analysis by a non-profit environmental group.

The Ecology Center and report that 59% of low-cost jewelry sold at stores like Walmart, Kohl’s, Forever 21, H&M, Hot Topic and Target, contained one or more chemicals considered by the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) to be a hazard to human health at high levels. Of 99 pieces of jewelry analyzed by X-ray fluorescence for the presence of these chemicals, 27% contained greater than the 300 parts-per-million (ppm) limit for lead set by CPSC for use by children, and 13% contained greater than 100 ppm of arsenic, which has been linked to bladder, kidney, lung, liver and prostate cancers following repeated exposure. Other compounds that appeared in the analysis included cadmium, a toxic metal used in electroplating processes and in battery production that can build up in the kidneys and impair kidney function and contribute to reproductive abnormalities and lung cancer.

The CPSC says young children should not be exposed to these compounds, since swallowing or sucking on the pieces could increase their exposure and make them vulnerable to health problems.

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But young children are the primary target of the inexpensive jewelry studied, and their increasing risk of exposure to these toxic compounds has led consumers to push for stricter laws regulating chemicals in commercial products. In April 2011, Sen. Frank Lautenberg introduced a bill to upgrade the Toxic Substances Control Act, which would increase the testing of commonly used chemicals and better inform the public about potential hazards of the compounds in everyday products. Advocates hope the bill will move to a vote in the Senate this year. Until then, even if your children (or you) are a fan of inexpensive bling, it’s probably a good idea to keep the accessorizing to a minimum.

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Alice Park is a writer at TIME. Find her on Twitter at @aliceparkny . You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.