FALMOUTH — When Michele Armour purchased some children's jewelry recently, she was surprised to learn that toxic chemicals lurked underneath the paint and metallic gleam of the necklace and ring sets.
The "best friends" peace heart necklaces contained medium levels of mercury and low levels of arsenic and lead, according to the Ecology Center in Ann Arbor, Mich.
The "love" necklace and ring set had low levels of arsenic, cadmium and mercury.
"I have four young nieces, so I knew what kind of jewelry they'd be looking for," said Armour, a Falmouth resident who answered the call for volunteers and purchased the jewelry at Wal-Mart in Falmouth for the purpose of having the pieces tested in an environmental study.
"Arsenic, mercury and lead are not our best friends," Armour said. She said most consumers probably are not aware of their presence in children's jewelry.
The two jewelry sets she purchased were among 99 pieces of low-cost children's and adult jewelry tested from 14 different retailers in six states for lead, cadmium, arsenic, mercury, bromine and chlorine (PVC).
The chemicals have been linked in animals and some human studies to allergies and long-term health problems such as birth defects, learning disabilities, liver toxicity and cancer, researchers from the Ecology Center say.
Some items purchased at the Wal-Mart in Fall River, Claire's in Holyoke and Burlington Coat Factory in Worcester had lead levels higher than what is allowed by the U.S. Consumer Protection Safety Council for children's jewelry, researchers said.
In fact, 27 percent of the jewelry in the nationwide study contained lead greater than the allowable council levels of 300 parts per million in children's jewelry, said Elizabeth Saunders of Clean Water Action in Boston, which assisted with the study.
The danger is children will put the brightly colored and shiny jewelry in their mouths, Saunders said. "There are safer alternatives available," she said.
Researchers at the Ecology Center say nearly 59 percent of the products had a high level of one or more hazardous chemicals.
Until federal regulations governing toxic chemicals are strengthened, they advise parents not to let young children play with or wear cheap metal jewelry — and that includes not letting babies suck on necklaces their moms might be wearing.
The regulatory system is in disrepair, Saunders said. Her group and the Ecology Center support rewriting the Toxic Substance Control Act, known as the Safe Chemicals Act, to protect children and other consumers from toxic chemicals.
For more information on the study results, go to www.HealthyStuff.org.
Wal-Mart officials were not available for comment.