Make a difference. Innovate. Engage communities.

That’s what we’re trying to do at California Watch. Our ultimate goal is to produce high-impact stories that prompt change, serve the public and reach audiences in new ways.  

So we are especially proud of our story this past weekend on lead threats in jewelry. We think it meets the goals we have set internally for our biggest projects.

Reporters Joanna Lin and Mandy Hofmockel detailed how California regulators have hit a national retailer with five violation notices in a span of 16 months for repeatedly selling jewelry containing illegal levels of lead.

The dangers of lead in jewelry may not sound like a new story. But if you think the problem has been eliminated, you’d be sadly mistaken. 

The toxic metal is especially harmful to young children and women who are pregnant. Prolonged exposure to lead can cause developmental issues, including stunted growth and brain damage. High levels of lead can still be found in all kinds of consumer products, such as toys, children’s lunch boxes and even candy.

The case of Rainbow Apparel, with 35 stores throughout California, illustrates the persistent threat of lead. As Lin and Hofmockel wrote, “Just as tainted items are removed, a new wave of dangerous necklaces, pendants and bracelets takes their place.”

After state regulators issued a fourth violation notice in June, Lin and Hofmockel went shopping. They bought 30 jewelry items at Rainbow stores in the Bay Area and sent them off for testing. Six of the jewelry pieces, or 20 percent of the items purchased, contained unlawful levels of lead.  

Our reporting produced results before a single word was published. When we told Rainbow about our testing results, the chain ordered all of its stores across the country – more than 1,100 stores in all – to pull the lead-tainted items off shelves.

That’s good news for consumers. And it’s the kind of results we hope to attain via our best journalism.

But we felt we could do more with this story to engage consumers.

To that end, California Watch is sponsoring three lead screening events over the next 10 days – one in Oakland, one in Richmond and one in Los Angeles. Our public engagement manager, Ashley Alvarado, organized these events. The first will be tomorrow in Oakland.

Consumers who have bought jewelry from any retailer – whether it’s a big chain, a sidewalk vendor or at a flea market – are welcome to bring jewelry to any of our screening locations for tests that will yield results in a matter of minutes. If you’re a parent worried about the bracelet your toddler has been putting in his or her mouth, this is a chance to get some answers.

California Watch staff have been trained to use an X-ray fluorescence device, the same equipment that state regulators rely upon to perform initial lead screening exams. We are renting the device from QuickShot XRF. Buying one would cost $24,000, roughly the price of a new Prius. The equipment is not terribly complicated to use – but the price tag puts these tests out of reach for most Californians.

State regulators and the Center for Environmental Health, which performed the initial lead screens on the items we bought at Rainbow, also perform free lead screenings. But we thought it would be a good idea to hold our own screening events in conjunction with the publication of our story. We hope the heightened awareness around our reporting will boost participation.

The tests are very reliable but may not yield conclusive results. For our story, we sent items that screened positive for lead to a separate laboratory, Forensics Analytical in Hayward, to confirm the findings. In every case, the results from the initial screening stood up.

We’re counting on our news partners that have published or broadcast our story to help get the word out about the lead screenings in their area.

Our screening events will be held in culturally diverse neighborhoods where risks for elevated blood-lead levels tend to be higher. It’s a prime opportunity to demonstrate our commitment to solution-oriented reporting while raising awareness about California Watch and our public service mission. We will be gathering information from these events that may yield more stories.

Is this unusual for a media organization? You bet. I spent nearly a quarter century working in newspapers. And I’m not sure many traditional media outlets would attempt such an event. But in our small, new media shop, we see it as another way to operate outside the box.

Is this advocacy? Not at all. With these screenings, we are not pushing any sort of agenda. Rather, we’ll be alerting consumers and parents to potential hazards and arming them with the basics they need in order to protect themselves and their children, address and identify the associated health risks, and search out more information independently. That’s what any media organization, new or old, ought to be doing.

Here’s the schedule for our upcoming screening events. Hope to see you at one of them.

Wednesday, Oct. 6
De Colores Head Start at Fruitvale Village
1155 35th Ave., Oakland
8 a.m. to 3 p.m.

Sunday, Oct. 10
Richmond Flea Market
716 W. Gertrude Ave., Richmond
9 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Thursday, Oct. 14
Nahui Ohlin
1511 W. Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles
Noon to 6 p.m.

California Watch, a project of the Center for Investigative Reporting, is supported by major grants from the California Endowment, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the James Irvine Foundation and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.

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Mark Katches is a past editorial director for The Center for Investigative Reporting. He is currently editor of the Oregonian and vice president of content for the Oregonian Media Group. Previously, he built and ran investigative teams at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and Orange County Register. Mark was the primary editor of Pulitzer Prize-winning projects in both 2008 and 2010 and edited or managed five other stories that were Pulitzer finalists. Projects he edited or directed also have won the George Polk Award, the IRE award and the Scripps-Howard National Journalism Award as well as the Goldsmith Prize for Investigative Reporting, the Worth Bingham Prize, the Sigma Delta Chi Award and the National Headliner Award. Multiplatform projects produced by CIR staff under Mark's guidance won a national News & Documentary Emmy, two Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University Awards, a George Foster Peabody Award and an Edward R. Murrow Award. He has overseen projects or websites that have won four Online Journalism Awards in the last decade, in addition to logging more than a dozen OJA finalists. In 2001, he was part of a reporting team that won the Gerald Loeb and IRE awards for a series of stories detailing the rising profits from the human tissue trade. He completed a Punch Sulzberger Fellowship at Columbia University in 2013 and has taught reporting classes as an adjunct professor at the University of Southern California, UC Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism and Stanford University. Mark served on the board of directors of Investigative Reporters and Editors for four years and oversaw the IRE mentorship program for six years.