Years after signing a legal settlement limiting the concentrations of heavy metals in their products, popular mall-based clothing chains, including Charlotte Russe, Forever 21, and Wet Seal are still hawking lead-contaminated purses, belts, and shoes, according to the Center for Environmental Health, the Oakland, Calif. watchdog that filed the lawsuit in 2010. Although the center’s investigators have recorded a progressive reduction in lead-tainted accessories—retailers such as Guess, H&M, J.Crew, and Target committed zero violations this year, for instance—independent lab tests revealed that purses, belts, and shoes aimed at thrift-conscious young women exceeded safety limits of 300 parts per million of lead in leather goods and 200 ppm in vinyl products hundreds of times over.

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In the past year alone, more than half of the 58 Wet Seal accessories CEH tested for lead, including a yellow belt that topped 33,200 ppm, failed to meet safety standards. Charlotte Russe and Forever 21 performed marginally better: around 25 percent of the items the group tested registered above lead limits.

In the past year alone, more than half of the 58 Wet Seal accessories CEH tested for lead failed to meet safety standards.

“These retailers target young women, who are especially at risk from lead threats,” says Michael Green, executive director of CEH, in a statement. “Families should not support giant retailers that flout the law and ignore their responsibility to provide safer products. This holiday season, we urge shoppers to avoid purses and other accessories at these stores.”

The center is targeting products marketed to young women because lead accumulates in bones and can be released during pregnancy, potentially harming both mother and fetus. Many scientists agree, however, that there is no such thing as a “safe” level of lead exposure for anyone.

Childhood lead poisoning, which has no obvious physical symptoms, remains a major environmental-health problem in the United States, resulting in nervous system and kidney damage, learning disabilities, speech and behavior problems, poor muscle coordination, decreased muscle and bone growth, and hearing damage, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. Lead exposure has also been linked to higher rates of infertility in women and increased risks of heart attacks, strokes, and high blood pressure.

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+ Center for Environmental Health

[Via New York Times]