Your Purse May Be Contaminated with Toxic Metal

High levels of lead detected in cheap handbags; separate study links lead to heart disease.

April 10, 2009

Handle with care: Inexpensive purses may come coated with toxic lead, study says.

RODALE NEWS, EMMAUS, PA—How much is a $15 handbag really worth? A new study points out that, as we find out again and again, often cheap products aren’t really cheap. Factory-farmed meat, sold for pennies a pound, pollutes waterways and spreads disease-resistant bacteria. Cheap toys seem to be in a continuous recall process due to lead or phthalate contamination. Everything, it seems, has two costs: a dollar price, and a hidden cost to the environment or to your health. And now you can add cheap, trendy handbags to the list. A new report from the environmental nonprofit Center for Environmental Health (CEH) claims that inexpensive faux-leather bags sold at department stores and discount retailers have levels of lead 90 times higher than the federal limit for lead in paint.

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THE DETAILS: Scientists for CEH purchased dozens of faux-leather handbags, purses, and wallets from 21 California outlets of national chain stores, including Kohl’s, Target, Macy’s, JC Penney, H&M, Wal-Mart, Aldo’s, Ross, Forever 21, New York & Co., Sears, and DSW. They tested the outer surfaces of the faux leather, which was most often made of PVC or vinyl, but in some cases was made from other materials such as polyurethane. Handbags with high lead levels were found at all but five of the retailers. The worst offenders were bags that were yellow or yellow-tinted, but lead was found in bags of every color tested. The highest level of lead the scientists found was in a purse that contained 54,000 parts per million (ppm) of lead, which is 90 times higher than the federal limit of lead in paint (600 ppm). CEH is currently initiating litigation against the retailers for violating California’s strict Proposition 65 law, which requires a warning label on any product that would expose consumers to over 0.5 micrograms (mcg) of lead in a day.

At the same time as this report was released, a new study published in the journal Environmental Health found that women between the ages of 65 and 87 with high blood lead levels (over 8 mcg per deciliter) were nearly 60 percent more likely to die during the 12-year study than women with lower levels. The most common cause of death was coronary heart disease. The high lead levels were probably accumulated over a lifetime of exposure, says lead author Nadia Khalil, MD, PhD, MPH, postdoctoral research associate at Wright State University in Ohio. When lead gets into the human body, says Dr. Khalil, “it stays for a long, long time.” Most women begin to accumulate lead in their skeletons during the teen and childbearing years (just about the time those colorful, trendy, inexpensive vinyl purses look particularly attractive). But as people age, their bones start to break down and release that stored lead into the bloodstream, where it may lead to heart disease, high blood pressure, and strokes.

WHAT IT MEANS: In children, lead exposure can cause learning disabilities and brain damage and may even lead to violent behavior later in life. Adult exposure to lead may trigger cognitive disorders and kidney failure, and some scientists believe it could be linked to an increased risk of Lou Gherig’s disease, or ALS. Cheap, trendy purses may appeal to your up-to-the-minute fashion sense, but sticking with a well-made classic model is better, both for your wallet, and for your and your family’s long-term health.

Here are a few ways to protect yourself from the toxic effects of lead:

• Say no to vinyl, and that’s final. The purses in the CEH report were made from cheap materials with cheap paint. Stick to real leather or canvas bags. If you want to be ecominded, look for vegetable-tanned leather products, or buy used from vintage and thrift clothing stores.

• Keep vinyl bags away from kids. Every mom knows how much little kids enjoy playing with purses. If you can’t swap out a vinyl bag for a better alternative just yet, keep kids from handling the bag or chewing on its handles.

• Protect your heart with strong bones. The human skeletal and cardiovascular systems are intricately linked, says Dr. Khalil. Minimizing your risk of osteoporosis later in life will go a long way to keeping lead out of your blood.

• Get enough exercise. “Women who report walking on a daily basis and have a lower BMI (body mass index) and have lower circulatory lead,” says Dr. Khalil.