Jan. 22, 2010— -- A landmark agreement involving two big retail chains establishes, for the first time, limits on lead in women's handbags and wallets.
The Center for Environmental Health went to 100 of the nation's top retailers -- including Target, Macy's, Wal-Mart and Kohl's -- and bought purses.
The group had the bags tested for lead at an independent lab. Two separate tests were conducted. Some bags were wiped to see how much, if any, lead would simply rub off the material. The bags also were tested for the total lead content of the products.
The tests came back showing disturbingly high levels of lead, the Center for Environmental Health said.
"This is something every woman of child bearing age ought to be paying attention to," says Dr. Alan Greene, a lead expert and pediatrician at Stanford University.
Lead can be found in many bags made of polyvinyl chloride, or PVC. Some manufacturers find it useful in items like synthetic handbags, because it makes material pliable. It also can be found in some pigments because it makes bright colors last longer.
"Manufacturers, importers and retailer chains have to ensure that the products meet consumer and regulatory requirements and they need to avoid ingredients in products that cause concern," says Allen Blakey, VP of Government Affairs for the Vinyl Institute -- a trade association representing the vinyl industry. "You can make PVC without lead. Most PVC made in Europe and North America does not have lead."
The Center for Environmental Health says that nearly all of the bags tested were manufactured in China.According to the Center for Environmental Health -- in some tests -- bags had levels 30 to 100 times higher than the federal limit for lead in all children's items. That limit is the only federal limit on the books for lead in consumer products, other than paint.
The concern with many of the purses is that lead can rub off of the bag and end up on people's hands, or on children's hands and then into their mouths.
Greene said not everyone is equally affected.
"Little kids put things into their mouth much more than others do," he said, "so that makes the years up to pregnancy, and during pregnancy and nursing, and early childhood, the key times of exposure."
So how much lead can rub off a purse when touched? The CEH found levels of lead higher than California allows for a product unless it carries a warning label for cancer and birth defects.
Lead has been implicated in a laundry list of health concerns, mostly for children, pregnant women and women who hope to become pregnant.
Studies have linked lead to child learning disabilities and some have even linked childhood lead exposure to Alzheimer's later in life.
"When it's something that Mom is carrying around with her all the time, it's rubbing against her clothes, it's rubbing against her kids, it's a place you don't" want to have lead, Greene said.
Companies Agree to Pull Suspect Bags From Shelves in California
The companies in the settlement -- H&M, New York & Company, and two suppliers -- agreed to pull suspect bags from their shelves in California, where the lawsuit was filed. Each company also will pay $37,000 that will, in part, pay to educate people about toxic health hazards and pay for tests on bags to enforce tougher lead standards going forward.
H&M told ABC News it will enforce tougher standards globally. The company added it has had a ban in place on many toxic chemicals in its products, including lead, and that in this case, one of their suppliers violated company policy.
The Center for Environmental Health told ABC News it is now in discussion with more than 60 major retailers and suppliers working toward a similar agreement. If that broader settlement with retail giants is achieved, it could mean tough new lead standards for bags in stores across the country.