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Caroline Cox

What’s in your wallet? Maybe lead, a toxic metal

on January 26, 2011

A few years ago, Caroline Cox was reading the newspaper when a yellow purse in an ad caught her eye. “We should test that for lead,” she thought.

Soon after, she noticed the bright handbag carried by a woman who came into her office for a job interview. Then she saw the brand new red wallet her daughter just purchased on a shopping trip in San Francisco.

Cox, who is the research director at an Oakland-based non-profit advocating the reduction of toxic chemicals, decided to test the bags. All of them showed unsafe levels of lead, kicking off an investigation that found handbags containing up to 90 times more lead than federal regulations allow in paint.

And so fashion accessories became the latest item in a long list of everyday objects that Cox’s organization, the Center for Environmental Health, tests for the toxic heavy metal. The group has also found lead in items like children’s bounce houses, artificial turf, poker chips, baby bibs, jewelry, vinyl diaper bags and kids’ beanbag chairs.

The center, which was founded in 1996 by Michael Green, advocates to reduce the use of chemicals like Bisphenol-A and phthalates that are commonly found in household products, but the group’s primary work is investigating products that could expose children and pregnant women to lead.

Lead is especially toxic to children. According to the Centers for Disease Control,  exposure can impair children’s cognitive and behavioral development, and when pregnant women are exposed to lead, their babies can also suffer developmental problems. People are exposed to lead by inhaling it—often by breathing the dust from chipping lead paint—or by consuming it—typically through a process called “hand-to-mouth exposure.” For example, a child could be exposed by putting a lead-tainted toy in her mouth, or a pregnant woman could handle her lead-contaminated purse and then eat a sandwich.

Why is lead in purses? Adding lead to vinyl products is one way to help them withstand high temperatures, Cox said. It is also sometimes used in vinyl pigments, which is why the yellow purse first caught Cox’s eye.

The Center for Environmental Health tests jewelry and kids’ products on behalf of the California Attorney General to ensure they adhere to state and federal standards. The center then uses lawsuits to force the companies that sell the products to make them safer.

Last year, the center sued more than 40 retailers to limit the use of lead in handbags and other fashion accessories, and the companies agreed to set new industry standards for lead use in their products as part of a $1.7 million legal settlement.

Since the agreement, Cox said, the problem of lead in accessories has been improving. But as she showed me a holiday Toy Story-themed tote bag from Safeway that had recently tested positive for lead, I wasn’t feeling very secure.

Specifically, my own brown vinyl purse was looking especially suspicious. Staring down at it sitting beside my chair, I wondered if there was any lead in it. Cox was kind enough to check it out for me.

She removed one strap from a zipper pull and placed it in the x-ray florescence analyzer machine. In about 30 seconds, the machine shot an x-ray beam into the sample and scanned how many atoms of heavy metals were in the scrap from my purse.

A readout came up on a computer screen. The news was good: No lead.

Cox reattached the little strap to my bag and I breathed a sigh of relief.

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Photo by Basil D Soufi
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