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This image provided by the California Department of Toxic Substances Control shows children’s hair clips containing 10,000 parts per million lead – well above the state legal limit.
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updated 7/17/2012 4:27:40 PM ET 2012-07-17T20:27:40

California is cracking down on more than a dozen businesses accused of selling and distributing costume jewelry containing dangerous levels of lead despite repeated warnings.

State investigators uncovered hundreds of lead-laced trinkets marketed to children and adults, including some pieces contaminated with lead levels more than 1,000 times the legal state limit.

The state was expected to file a lawsuit Tuesday against 16 companies — retailers, wholesalers, suppliers and distributors — doing business in Los Angeles and elsewhere. The companies are accused of violating lead standards and engaging in deceptive practices by falsely advertising tainted jewelry as lead-free.

For the past three years, inspectors at the state Department of Toxic Substances Control conducted spot checks at stores and factories, zapping necklaces, earrings, hair clips and tiaras with hand-held X-ray devices to check for lead. Items with high lead content were then shipped to a laboratory for detailed analysis. Jewelry items containing the toxic metal were mostly inexpensive.

Brian Johnson, deputy director of enforcement, said these were not isolated cases.

"You can walk into most any fashion jewelry business in the LA jewelry district and find similar violations," Johnson said.

It's against the law to make, ship or sell jewelry that contains dangerous levels of lead. Children's jewelry cannot contain lead content exceeding the legal state limit of 600 parts per million. For adults, the limit is 60,000 parts per million.

In one case, investigators visited a business three times and found tainted jewelry every time. In another case, inspectors checked 45 pieces of jewelry from a supplier; half contained excessive lead including a pair of children's earrings shaped like a teddy bear that had lead levels 900 times the legal limit.

"We're still continuing to find a lot of noncompliant jewelry," said lead inspector Antonia Becker.

While there have not been documented cases of people sickened by the tainted jewelry, the enforcement comes as concerns grow over the presence of toxic metals in children's jewelry since children bite and suck on them.

Ingesting lead can cause brain damage, reduce IQ and lead to learning, attention and behavioral problems in infants and toddlers

State regulators do not monitor where the jewelry ends up, but believe most of it gets sold in low-income areas.

Though the focus has been on weeding out lead-laden jewelry, the state is also going after jewelry with high levels of cadmium, a soft, whitish metal that, if ingested over time, can damage the kidneys and bones. A state law that took effect earlier this year restricts cadmium levels in children's jewelry to no more than 0.03 percent cadmium by weight.

Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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