The state of California has reached a settlement with 71 major U.S. retailers and distributors that dramatically reduce the levels of lead in costume jewelry, which is sold chiefly to children and teenagers, an age group that is particularly vulnerable to the health impacts from exposure to lead.

"Today's landmark settlement is a success story showing how Proposition 65, California's premier right-to-know law, protects our families and communities from the health risks resulting from exposure to toxic chemicals in our environment," said California Attorney General Bill Lockyer.

"The power of the law is stimulating the costume jewelry industry to employ methods to reduce and eliminate lead from their products in order to avoid having to warn consumers about the health risks."

The settlement requires defendants to meet new standards for lead-free and low-lead jewelry and to meet those standards as quickly as possible, but no later than 2008. After that date, they are required to halt sales in California of any product not meeting these tough new standards for lead content.

Lockyer filed the lawsuit in June 2004, alleging defendant retailers violated Proposition 65 by failing to warn consumers about the health risks of exposure to the lead contained in certain jewelry. Proposition 65 requires such warnings when consumers are exposed to substances known by the state to cause cancer or reproductive harm.

In December 2004 the retailers agreed to mediate. A group of 38 jewelry distributors voluntarily joined the mediation and are joining the settlement.

The defendants have agreed to pay a total of $1.7 million, including $100,000 in civil penalties; $250,000 for a jewelry testing fund; $325,000 to educate consumers about the health risks from exposure to lead and other heavy metals; and the remainder in attorneys' fees. Other companies will have the ability to join in the stringent standards of the agreement in order to avoid potential liability.

Lockyer was joined in the settlement by the Center for Environmental Health and As You Sow, private parties that initially filed 60-day notices with the Attorney General's office notifying their intent to sue under Proposition 65.

Lead has been listed under Proposition 65 since 1987 as a chemical that can cause reproductive harm and birth defects, and has been on the list of chemicals known to cause cancer since 1992.

The state's testing found high levels of lead in both the metallic and non-metallic components of the jewelry targeted in the case. The amounts were well above the level that triggers the requirement to provide a Proposition 65 warning to consumers.

Exposure to lead occurs chiefly from ingestion, such as eating or putting objects into the mouth, putting young children particularly at risk. Teenagers also can suffer adverse effects, which include brain damage, kidney damage, hearing loss, and impaired growth.

Companies that entered the settlement include Burlington Coat Factory, CBI Distributing, Claire's Boutiques, Claire's Stores, Express, Federated Department Stores, J.C. Penney, KMart, Macy's West, Mervyn's, Nordstrom, Ross, Sears, Target and Toys R Us. Remaining as litigants are Wal-Mart, Jordache, Cornerstone Apparel (Papaya stores), the Gerson Company, and Royal Items.