Everything You Need to Know About Lead in Clothing: Who Uses It, How to Detect It, How To Avoid It

Meghan Blalock

You may recall that, just last week, we learned that mass hipster retailer Urban Outfitters openly lists highly toxic metal lead in some of their accessories and other products. As horrifying as that may sound, apparently it’s more commonplace than we’d all like to think.

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Caroline Cox, a head researcher at the Center for Environmental Health (CEH), keyed us into the multi-year research she and her team have been doing into the amounts of lead used in fashion products. While you would think that the production teams at most companies are aware that lead is toxic and shouldn’t be used, over the past few years it’s still been a major problem.

“We started working on this in 2008, and at that point, what we discovered through our testing was that lead-containing pigments were really common in fashion accessories made of artificial leather, primarily the brightly colored items,” Cox tells StyleCaster. “Red, orange, yellow, green, those kinds of colors. We identified more than 200 companies that were selling these kinds of products.”

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After they made this startling discovery, Cox tells us, the CEH brought litigation against 200 companies, requiring them to sign legally binding agreements that they would “stop using lead-containing pigments, and reduce the amount of lead in the products to trace amounts, or no more than 300 parts per million.” After following up with them post-litigation, the vast majority of the companies have complied, Cox says, except for three: Forever 21, Charlotte Russe, and Wet Seal.

“Charlotte Russe has met with us since then, and they are really trying to take steps to remedy the problem,” Cox says. “I’m not sure why they weren’t able to remedy it sooner, but they seem to be really headed in the right direction. Based on what our most recent testing at Forever 21 and Wet Seal, they haven’t actually spoken with us about it, but I think they’re doing a better job than they were before.

“We think things are headed in the right direction. I would still encourage people who are shopping at those stores to stay away from brightly colored artificial leather items, just to be sure.”

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How Urban Outfitters Gets Away With It

We asked Caroline to clarify why Urban wasn’t on her list of companies to watch out for when it comes to the use of lead. She responded, via e-mail: “More than 95% of the time we have been successful in getting fashion accessory companies to remove lead from their products. Occasionally a company will choose to put up warning signs instead of removing the lead. Urban Outfitters is one of those companies.”

How to Avoid Lead

Cox says that because there aren’t any official methods by which the FDA and the CEH measure the amount of lead used in garment manufacturing, it’s really tough to advise people on how to avoid it. As she mentioned, lead pigments are most often used in brightly colored objects, so it’s wise to avoid any bags, jewelry, or other accessories that sport those vivid deep dyes in artificial leathers and other man-made fabrics.

“As far as avoiding toxic chemicals in general, I personally as much as possible try to find clothing and stuff made of natural materials like cotton, wool, and leather,” Cox recommends. “I think there’s fewer problems with natural materials. And if you can find what you’re looking for in organic cotton, that helps even more.”

The short answer to a long-standing problem: it’s wise to analyze the content of every piece at Urban Outfitters, and to avoid buying those that list lead as an ingredient. For other fast-fashion retailers, avoid bright colors in artificial materials.

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