BY AMY ZIFF
My Grandmother Helen always taught us to save up to buy good jewelry. While I have a few family heirlooms, I’m not sure I’m living up to my grandmother’s mandate. My jewelry box contains antiques from fairs and a funky collection of colorful pieces that remind me of certain times in my life. There are also trinkets and mementos I just can’t part with. A few items are “good” investments, I suppose. But what has the most value is hard to say. Who knows what most of them are actually worth or what they are actually made of?
My kids like digging for “treasure” in my jewelry box. They’ll pull out a strand of beads or a string of pearls (are those even real?) and drape them around their necks. They’ll put the smooth stone from an agate brooch against their cheeks. They’ll try on bracelets and rings. And no matter how many times I say, “Don’t put that in your mouth,” inevitably I look over and find someone sucking on a necklace or holding the back end of a pin in their mouth before putting it on.
Most adults know not to put jewelry in their mouths, but I can’t say the same for kids.
It’s hard for me to be calm in these moments because I know what dangers lurk in seemingly innocent dress-up. Jewelry is yet another area where children can be exposed to chemicals of harm.
“Get that out of your mouth!” I shout, running over to confiscate said item.
Jewelry can contain heavy metals. At the top of the list is public enemy number one: lead – a potent neurotoxin with a quantifiable linkage to reduced IQ. This metal is associated with developmental issues, and learning, language, and behavioral problems. Whether it’s within an amalgam in the metal itself, only in some parts of a piece of jewelry, or mixed within colored paint or finishes, lead is commonly found in wearable jewelry. And it’s not just in the cheap stuff. Antique jewelry, particularly cloisonné pieces, can also contain lead. Doctors agree that there is simply no safe level of lead and yet, lead can be found on children’s jewelry without a warning.
In recent years, another heavy metal has been found in costume jewelry: cadmium. This one is a carcinogen. Last year a study testing 159 pieces of jewelry found 16 percent tested positive for cadmium. Cadmium can also be a skin irritant, and is associated with reproductive and developmental toxicity.
Nickel and chromium are two other heavy metals that can be found in jewelry, especially inexpensive jewelry. These two culprits are both skin irritants. Nickel is the most common allergen in both children and adults.
Here’s the thing, we all probably spent time picking through our mothers’ or grandmothers’ jewelry collections. I know I did. Doing the work I do, I know that toxins lurk, even in the prettiest things.
And with young kids, I’ve been increasingly aware of all the trinkets and costume jewelry that are marketed to kids. In my family, we always have a battle walking by Claire’s at the mall because I don’t want them to buy disposable jewelry that will end up in a landfill, sooner rather than later, and is likely to be toxic. I know, it’s not always fun to say no.
Worse than the battle at the mall is that my kids have accumulated inexpensive gifts from their friends – bracelets, earrings, and pins that are decorated with paint, sparkles, gemstones and more. Beyond being made relatively inexpensively, I have no idea what they could be made of. And with over 180 million recalls on jewelry in the US in recent years, those mystery materials are cause for alarm!
Jewelry kits can also hide troublesome substances. They don’t typically list what the jewelry is made of, so it’s impossible to know what might be used. A recall of a common jewelry-making kit (my family has one that is frighteningly similar) sold at Target and other major chain retailers cited jewelry components that contained high amounts of toxic lead.
Jewelry, including kits and costume jewelry, is not labeled, so parents need to be aware of the risks. In addition to containing heavy metals, cheap, fast fashion items can also include barium, brominated flame retardants, and PVC. Each of these is associated with various health impacts.
It comes down to the fact that jewelry often uses cheap materials that shouldn’t be worn or handled by kids (or really by adults, either). While some jewelry may be labeled “Not for Children,” indicating that it probably contains a toxic substance, once you remove the tag you might not remember. And if your kids are like mine, they’ll touch whatever they want, unaware of any unseen hazards.
MAKING SAFER CHOICES
Now that I’ve shared all of this information, don’t panic. Just do your best to remain alert to this potential for harm now that you know. You have the power. Every small change you make towards healthier products is important and meaningful.
Jewelry doesn’t have to be harmful to humans, contribute to the plastic pollution problem, or contaminate the planet. Good quality jewelry purchases are long-lasting and memorable. Look for 100 percent gold and sterling silver, or surgical implant grade stainless steel.
While choosing silver and gold is a great solution to avoiding toxic substances, remember that it can introduce a set of environmental and human rights issues. Choosing upcycled and vintage gold and silver is best for the environment, but are only safe when they are pure metals. They also avoid contributing to any issues regarding the safety and health of workers involved in the supply chain.
For younger children who are not yet ready for special jewelry, or for more affordable options, consider making your own rope or thread bracelets, macramé and fabric jewelry, or other decorative items without any metals. Make sure to skip the plastic.
If you do make crafts with the kids, jewelry or otherwise, wash your hands as soon as you are done. And make sure none of the pieces are left where young children might explore them with their mouths.
THE BOTTOM LINE
The bottom line? If you buy jewelry, find out what it’s made of. What every single part is made of.
For a recent birthday, I had to do just this. I decided I wanted to get my daughters a “real” piece of jewelry. Something nice but not ridiculously expensive. Something my grandmother would’ve approved of. Yet the reality is they are still at an age where things get lost or tossed aside and can go missing for weeks on end. Beyond that, I needed to know what the jewelry was made of to ensure it wasn’t toxic.
I set out to find safe jewelry that my kids would love and I could too. It had to be nontoxic, hypo-allergenic, and not contribute to plastic pollution.
I consulted my girlfriend, an amazing jewelry maker, to see if perhaps she had something for my girls. She had a necklace she made for adults that she adjusted for my girls in sterling silver. With a gemstone representing my birthstone and theirs, it was perfect. My daughters wear their special necklaces everyday. If it goes in a mouth, it’s ok! There’s nothing toxic in the silver or the gemstones!
Success for the nontoxic mom! Success for the kids.
Want more tips on safer jewelry? Read our Product Profile on Jewelry containing citations, and download our new educational fact sheet: What’s in Jewelry: Toxic Substances in Kids’ and Adult’s Jewelry.
My jeweler girlfriend is Meredith Kahn. Now she has a whole children’s gem line! She uses vermeil, which is gold plating over sterling silver. This makes the line safer and more affordable.
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Amy Ziff is the Founder and Executive Director of MADE SAFE®, a program of Nontoxic Certified, a nonprofit 501(c)(3). MADE SAFE is America’s first comprehensive human health-focused certification for nontoxic products across store aisles, from baby to personal care to household and beyond.