Sarah Schmidt

OTTAWA – Six out of 10 children’s jewelry items for sale in Canada tested at the government’s product safety laboratory in the last two years had dangerous and illegal levels of lead – some with levels comparable to car batteries made of almost pure lead.

Health Canada oversaw the targeted testing of 205 samples of suspicious items and identified 120 illegal products. The most egregious case was a jewelry item containing 92 per cent lead, suggesting the jewelry was made from lead-acid batteries for cars and other lead scraps.
During this period, the department publicized on its website five recalls of children’s jewelry products with excessive amounts of lead and issued two advisories on the subject.
Wearing jewelry made of lead is not a health risk, but lead poisoning can be fatal if children chew, suck or swallow it.
Doug Perovic, chairman of the materials science and engineering department at the University of Toronto, has conducted his own tests on children’s jewelry over the years to determine lead levels.
The government tests, he said, show lead levels in some children’s jewelry in Canada are far worse than levels in old plumbing pipes and in current electronics assembly, which usually contain about 40 per cent lead. He said the worst cases rival lead-acid car batteries, which are almost pure lead.
“Who knows what these people are thinking. The stuff is thrown into a furnace, melted and cast into shapes of hearts and pendants,” Perovic said. “They’re putting on a thick coat of paint to make it look shiny and that’s it.”
The Health Canada data, compiled in national market surveys, show 47 of 83 samples tested in 2006 exceeded the legal limit of .06 per cent lead, or 600 parts per million. Health Canada’s Product Safety Lab tested another 108 samples for the 2007 survey, of which 67 had illegal levels.
Health Canada refused to release lead levels in each case, citing the confidentiality of third parties, but provided ranges. The illegal limits ranged from .079 per cent to 87 per cent lead in the 2006 survey. In 2007, the range went from .071 per cent to 92 per cent lead.
The government lab tested another 14 samples during these two years. Six contained illegal levels of lead, ranging from 1.9 per cent to 89 per cent lead.
In the 120 cases, the department said it followed up with the companies to ensure that the items were removed from sale and that “appropriate action was taken to advise parents and caregivers who may have purchased the product.” Health Canada said it couldn’t provide specifics because the cases involve investigations of third parties.
Dianna Peters is deeply troubled by the results. The mother of four, including three daughters ages nine, seven and four, has purchased earrings, necklaces, and bracelets for her girls at a popular jewelry store for girls and tweens.
“There’s no way I would buy them if I knew that they contained lead. What we’re buying should be safe. How do you know unless you have a lead test when you’re shopping?” said Peters, of Langley, B.C.
She’s particularly concerned about her youngest girl. “Everything goes in the mouth, even when she’s not thinking about it, she’ll be chewing on the necklaces.”
The targeted testing of suspected products was conducted after Health Canada toughened up regulations in April 2005, making it illegal to import and sell children’s jewelry items that contain more than .06 per cent lead.
Ottawa followed the U.S. government, which announced the same rule a few months earlier after overwhelming scientific evidence showed the devastating health and potentially deadly consequences of lead poisoning, especially in the neurological development of children.
“It’s the government’s responsibility to not allow them to come across the border, or make sure the standards are met,” said Peters.
“It’s really disappointing, and there’s obviously a problem. If there’s no legislation to actually formally restrict the sale of these things, then it’s going to continue to happen,” added Perovic.
Currently, Health Canada does not have the power to recall products that violate the law, but can seize products from store shelves. A new consumer product safety law, to be tabled in Parliament Tuesday, will empower the government to issue mandatory product recalls when companies fail to act on legitimate safety concerns.
Aaron Freeman, policy director for Environmental Defence, said these findings demonstrate why Canada’s new law, to replace the “antiquated” product-safety legislation, needs real teeth.
“We hope the law will be science-based so when science identifies a threat and we see the threat in the market, that the government is required to act, not just empowered to act. That’s really what consumer protection is about.”
© Canwest News Service 2008