Inspections by the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) of 85 pieces of jewelry collected since last fall from retailers and importers revealed that 20 percent of them still posed a potential poisoning hazard.
Separate surveys by health officials or lead experts in Ohio, Massachusetts and Maryland found even higher percentages.
The unannounced federal inspections also left no doubt about the primary source of the threat: of the 17.9 million pieces of jewelry items pulled from the market since the start of 2005, 95 percent were made in China.
Federal officials said that they had made progress in curtailing the lead threat in children's jewelry, but that they needed more enforcement powers, like the ability to impose fines or even criminal charges against repeat offenders.
Scott Wolfson, a spokesman for the CPSC, said, "We want to get to a point of not having to do recall after recall, and simply make the marketplace safe."
The hazardous jewelry has been brought onto the market by big-name companies like Mattel, Juicy Couture and Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment, which included 746,621 lead-contaminated "bonus charms" in a Shirley Temple movie package. But scores of small importers like Really Useful Products, a company with six employees based in Darien, Illinois, also delivered children's jewelry to national retailers with dangerous levels of lead.
The importers, in the commission's documents, often assert that their contracts prohibit jewelry with elevated levels of lead. But by failing to test a large enough sample of the delivered goods — not just at the start of production, but regularly as new batches are produced — these companies still ended up selling hazardous products, the documents show.
Jewelry is perhaps the most dangerous place for lead because children can swallow an entire ring or pendant, causing acute poisoning, which can cause respiratory failure, seizures and even death, whereas neurological damage and learning deficiencies are often associated with exposure to lead paint. Many children also tend to suck on jewelry or put it in their mouths, allowing lead to be absorbed into their bloodstream.
From 2000 to 2005, about 20,000 children turned up in emergency rooms after ingesting jewelry, according to a hospital surveillance program by the agency, though it is not know how many of those cases involved lead. These cheap products, made of lead because it is an inexpensive metal filler, also easily fall apart, making it even easier for a child to swallow a small part.
That is just what happened in 2003, when doctors in Oregon found a lead medallion that had been purchased from vending machine in the stomach of a young boy who had complained of abdominal cramps and diarrhea.
And last year, Jarnell Brown, a 4-year-old in Minneapolis, swallowed a heart-shaped charm that had been given away by Reebok International as a sales incentive on its children's footwear. Jarnell died after suffering vomiting, seizures and respiratory arrest. During the autopsy, a charm imprinted with the Reebok logo was removed from his stomach.
"It's just outrageous," said Lisa Smestad, a environmental health official in Minneapolis who investigated the boy's death. "How can we be allowing products that are targeted and marketed to children that have such a potential to poison them?"
Children's advocates say that neither the federal government nor the private sector has done enough to ensure that jewelry entering the market is not contaminated with lead. Far broader federal tests are necessary, they say, backed up by stiff penalties and even criminal charges if companies, seeking to maximize profits by buying from the lowest-cost suppliers, continue to import contaminated children's jewelry.
"If a company is going to put their label on it, they need to be able to guarantee these products are not going to cause harm to consumers," said Rachel Weintraub, director of product safety for the Consumer Federation of America. The Consumer Product Safety Commission has been trying to crack down on lead jewelry since February 2005, when it announced that any children's jewelry that had more than .06 percent lead by weight — and that was accessible to a child who might suck on the item or simply touch it — would be considered a hazard, and subject to recall.
Prodded by the Sierra Club, an environmental group that has focused on combating lead hazards, the product safety commission is now considering a formal ban on lead in children's jewelry, instead of simply setting an enforcement standard.
Dozens of letters have been sent to the commission urging it to adopt this ban immediately.
Among the 195 pages of comments submitted this year about the proposed ban, only one speaks in firm opposition: a March 2007 letter from the government of China.
Jewelry with lead is not a danger, Guo LiSheng, a deputy director general at China's General Administration for Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine, wrote in a March letter to the commission, as long as it is covered by a protective coating.
The regulation, he argued, was unnecessary and would "increase the cost of producing and inspection of the manufacturers of children's metal jewelry, and bring unnecessary obstacles to trade."