Lead is a soft metal found naturally in the earth. Although it is toxic to humans, it's been widely used as a component of various consumer products. Until recently, lead was used in gasoline and many household paints.
Although lead can be dangerous to people of any age, it is especially toxic to children under the age of 5. Experts believe younger kids are more susceptible because their brains and bodies are still quickly developing.
Young children are also at greater risk of exposure because they tend to put objects and their hands into their mouths frequently. Lead typically enters the body when a contaminated item comes into direct contact with the mouth. That item could be a lead-containing object (like jewelry) or a child's hand after she has touched the jewelry.
In children, lead poisoning is linked to lower IQs, learning disabilities, and general neurological problems. In adults, lead can cause numerous problems from high blood pressure to inability to concentrate or even decreased fertility.
How to Protect Your Children from Leaded Jewelry
You can reduce your kids' risk of exposure by limiting them to jewelry that is either completely made of plastic, or that is made from high-quality precious metals, such as sterling silver or gold. (But avoid metal jewelry with visible solder, which itself can contain high amounts of lead.) Do not allow children to wear jewelry with "crystal" glass beads, or pewter jewelry, unless you have tested it for lead (see below) or are confident it is a "lead free" variety.
Always buy children's jewelry from a reputable source, and do not buy any jewelry that is extremely inexpensive - especially if it was made in China. (Jewelry recently recalled for lead contamination by a dollar store sold for as little as $1.00 per set. That's a big red flag!) This rule definitely applies to any metal-containing jewelry sold through vending machines. Those are notoriously low quality and potentially hazardous.
If you're curious whether jewelry or other items in your household contain lead, test them yourself with an over-the-counter lead test kit. Simple kits can be found at the local hardware store, but those might not be designed for testing jewelry (read the label carefully). I found a kit online called The Lead Inspector by Abotex which is designed to test jewelry, as well as numerous other household items - even tap water and soil. ( I ordered the kit myself, and I'll be testing jewelry and sharing the results in an upcoming article.)
What to Do if You Think Your Child May Have Been Exposed
Contact your doctor right away and make an appointment for an exam and blood test. Fortunately, there are medications known to remove lead from the blood; but ask your doctor about their effectiveness and potential side effects before deciding on a definite course of action. These medications can reduce existing lead levels, but they may not be able to reverse any neurological damage that has already been done.
In the meantime, remove all low-quality metal jewelry from your home. Other common sources of household lead are older wall paint, leaded glass ("crystal"), and glazes on ceramics, including porcelain china.
For more information on the dangers of lead, contact the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission.
Important: The information in this article is only intended to be an introductory guide for becoming better informed about the dangers of lead in jewelry. It is not intended to be medical or expert scientific advice. Always contact your doctor for medical information as it applies to you and your children, and contact a local, state, or federal health or environmental agency for information about toxic contamination remediation in and around the home.