I-Team: You found WHAT in my purse?

Tests show high levels of lead

CINCINNATI - An I-Team investigation found high levels of lead in purses, with possible health implications not only for the women who carry them, but for children who may like to play with mommy's fashion accessories.

One of the stores immediately pulled all such bags from shelves across the country pending testing by its own vendor.

While there are no federal guidelines for how much lead manufacturers can put in purses or shoes, 40 retailers, including many of the most shopped stores here in the Tri-State, signed a voluntary legal agreement two years ago to cut the lead in accessories (a full list of stores can be found at http://goo.gl/c35kx ). It was part of a $1.7 million deal legally binding only in California, but most vendors don't make different products for that state then they ship everywhere else.

"Lead is such a toxic metal that it just shouldn't be in ordinary products that we use every day," said Caroline Cox, research director for the Center for Environmental Health, which initiated the action against the retailers that resulted in the lead limits. The center, based in Oakland, Calif., has tested hundreds of purses in the last three years and found lead in brands at all price points.

"You're touching your purse and then a little bit of that lead is getting on your fingers and then every time you maybe touch your mouth or eat a cookie," said Cox, "you're being exposed to lead."

Cox said this could be dangerous to pregnant women and their unborn children as well as young kids who often play with their mother's wallets and purses.

Scientific studies link lead to health issues
Scientific studies for years have connected lead to significant brain development issues in children, including:

  • low IQ
  • behavioral issues
  • cognitive function

Groups like the American Cancer Society and the Centers for Disease Control also have cited health implications for adults, including:

  • headaches
  • nausea
  • memory loss
  • miscarriage
  • kidney damage
  • nerve damage

Our testing
The I-Team shopped at six local stores that signed that agreement:

  • Nordstrom
  • Dillard's
  • Macy's
  • Target
  • TJ Maxx
  • Nordstrom Rack

In all, we bought 14 purses and then sent them to be tested twice.

First, experts at the Center for Environmental Health tested the bags. We then confirmed those results with the National Food Lab, a nationally recognized consulting and testing center in Livermore, Calif.

Both places found lead in the same three bags: a bright yellow Steve Madden purse we purchased at Nordstrom Rack and two Xhilaration wallets, a house brand purchased from Target (photos of these purses are above).

The legal agreement Nordstrom Rack, Steve Madden and Target all signed set the lead limit for accessories at 300 parts per million. The Madden bag rang up eight times that limit. Nordstrom immediately pulled all such bags from its stores across the country, pending further testing. Nordstrom released a full statement to 9 News, which can be read at http://goo.gl/W0hMu.

"If the handbags' lead levels exceed those we agreed to in the California Consent Decree, we will not return the item to our sales floor," said Tara Darrow, a spokeswoman for Nordstrom and Nordstrom Rack. "Our 2010 Consent Decree applies only to merchandise sold in California. However, to ensure consistency for our customers we apply those same California standards to the relevant products we sell in all stores."

Darrow said Nordstrom was in the process of re-communicating its lead level expectations to its vendors.

The Target wallets tested positive for lead as well, one at 27 times the agreed limit. Target didn't answer our questions directly. Instead, a spokeswoman said the store is "committed to providing high quality and safe products." Target's full statement can be read at http://goo.gl/szxgj.

We left messages repeatedly at the Steve Madden headquarters in New York City, but did not hear back.

Cox said purses that tested high for lead most often:

  • have bright colors, like yellow, red and orange
  • are made of artificial leather

"We want to get this problem taken care of, get these companies doing the right thing, so you can buy a purse without having to think about lead," said Cox.

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