Reebok's deadly lead charm draws $1 million federal fine

  • Article by: SARAH LEMAGIE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 18, 2008 - 9:03 AM

Two years after a Minneapolis boy swallowed part of a charm bracelet given away with a pair of athletic shoes and died of lead poisoning, the shoes' maker, Reebok, has agreed to pay the government $1 million to settle allegations that it violated the Federal Hazardous Substances Act.

In March 2006, Juanna Graham held a photo of her son Jarnell Brown, 4, who died of lead poisoning. “I think that no child should have to suffer as much as my child did,” she said Monday.

Photo: Joey McLeister, Star Tribune

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Two years after a Minneapolis boy swallowed part of a charm bracelet given away with a pair of athletic shoes and died of lead poisoning, the shoes' maker, Reebok, has agreed to pay the government $1 million to settle allegations that it violated the Federal Hazardous Substances Act.

The fine, to be announced today by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, is the largest of its kind levied against a company since the agency was established in 1972.

The news was small comfort for the mother of Jarnell Brown, 4, who died after swallowing the heart-shaped pendant on an 8-inch bracelet given away with Reebok shoes.

"I just don't really believe that my son is gone because of some shoes," said Juanna Graham, who said her life has been "hell" since Jarnell died on Feb. 22, 2006.

But the fine, which comes in the wake of a series of highly publicized toy recalls nationwide, sends a strong message to companies that the safety commission will not tolerate children's toys and products that contain dangerous amounts of lead, said Julie Vallese, agency senior spokeswoman.

Lead takes a massive toll

"The agency takes the violation of lead extremely seriously because of the damage it can have on a child's system," she said.

Jarnell's death sparked a nationwide recall of the bracelets, which were tucked inside about 300,000 boxes of shoes sold between May 2004 and the spring of 2006.

He suffered vomiting, seizures and respiratory arrest before dying at Children's Hospital in Minneapolis.

"I think that no child should have to suffer as much as my child did," said Graham, who now lives in St. Louis Park. Jarnell was an intelligent, sweet child who could recite his own phone number and who taught his little brother to walk, she said.

No other children were hurt by the bracelets, which Reebok recalled voluntarily.

The size of the government fine isn't the only reason the Reebok settlement stands out, Vallese said. The Consumer Product Safety Commission fines many companies for failing to report potentially hazardous products, but it's unusual for the agency to issue a fine for an actual violation, she said.

Kansas-based Winco Fireworks, the last company to receive a similar fine, was ordered to pay $600,000 in 2005 for selling banned fireworks.

The Federal Hazardous Substances Act bans toxic levels of lead in toys and products for children, with the agency urging makers of children's jewelry to keep lead content below 0.06 percent by weight.

Parts of the Reebok bracelets, which were imported from China, turned out to be 99 percent lead.

Tests done at Children's Hospital showed that lead levels in Jarnell's blood were three times higher than what health officials consider dangerous.

Jarnell's family reached a confidential settlement with Reebok approved by Hennepin County District Court in December 2007, said the family's attorney, James Heuer. When news of the federal fine reached Graham, "it was a tearful morning," Heuer said.

Reebok International representatives could not be reached for comment Monday night. But Heuer said company executives and lawyers were "compassionate and professional" about the recall. They issued a quick public apology and did not force Jarnell's family into extensive litigation, he said. "Most corporations, when something like this happens, get up and deny, deny, deny," he said.

Hazard endures

Despite research showing that lead can cause growth, learning and behavior problems in children, toys and costume jewelry containing lead are still made and sold.

The Safety Commission issued recalls for 61 toys in 2007, 19 of which were for lead hazards, Vallese said. In 2006, the agency issued 40 toy recalls, with only three related to lead.

The uptick is partly because the agency and toy industry were going through "a sweeping and expansive investigation of inventory," she said.

Most Minnesota children who suffer from lead poisoning were exposed to lead-based paint. Because most are very sick by the time they show symptoms, health officials advise parents to have their kids tested for lead, especially if they live in St. Paul or Minneapolis, live in older homes or are on Medical Assistance.

Sarah Lemagie • 952-882-9016

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