Are Shein clothes contaminated with dangerous levels of lead? Fact-checking website Snopes recently set its sights on demystifying a widely circulated claim that certain clothes and accessories from the online fast fashion retailer contain unhealthy levels of lead. The Chinese retail giant came under scrutiny in October 2021 for toxic materials found in its products. The concerns resurfaced about a year later on social media, with accusations the company was making lead-contaminated products that were harmful to customers.
The claims were the result of an investigation published by Canadian investigative consumer watchdog CBC’s Marketplace in October 2021. Thirty-eight pieces of clothing and accessories were examined from a range of fast-fashion retailers. Zaful, AliExpress, and Shein products were found to contain elevated levels of lead, PFAS (or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances), and phthalates. According to the investigation, Health Canada’s lead limit for children’s products was 90 mg/kg. University of Toronto scientists found around 20 times more lead in a Shein jacket for toddlers than Canadian public health officials permitted for children’s products. A red purse for sale had five times the allowed limit.
In an email to CBC’s Marketplace, Shein said the company had dropped the purse and jacket from their purchasing applications and would discontinue working with relevant third-party suppliers until the issue “was resolved.” However, Snopes reported that they could not independently verify this. As of this writing, no more details were available about the company’s response to the report, including whether they removed the items from sale and cut ties with certain vendors; similar-looking purses and jackets were still available as of August 2022.
A tweet from fashion blogger Cora Harrington, urging people to share companies with similar chemicals in their products, led Shein to post about their 2022 regulations on Aug. 18. Snopes said they contacted Shein after the tweets went viral to see if it had identified this issue in other products and what steps were taken to address it. “The two products in question from 2021 were quickly removed,” the company said in a statement. We are committed to the health and safety of our customers and regularly test products, such as apparel, cosmetics, and children’s wear, using standards set by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, Europe’s REACH, and other international regulatory agencies.”
The manufacturer also noted that it conducted over 160,000 chemical safety tests in 2002 with global laboratories such as ITS, SGS, BV, and TUV on cosmetics, children’s wear, and other products, immediately correcting any violations. According to Snopes, while Shein has addressed concerns raised by CBC, there is not enough specific information to confirm whether this applies to all individual products.
As of August 2022, the website gave the fact-check a verdict of “Mixture.” The factual evidence shows that a 2021 investigation found elevated levels of lead and other potentially hazardous chemicals in products from Shein and other retailers. Shein responded by claiming they removed those products from its apps, cut ties with vendors that made them, and conducted chemical safety tests. However, insufficient evidence exists to determine if all the products in Shein’s massive inventory with lead problems were identified in the consumer investigation and whether such products were eliminated.
Bloomberg reported in July 2022 that Shein had a vast network of contracted manufacturers that enabled it to offer thousands of new products. According to Bloomberg, the company had sales of $16 billion in 2021 alone. Their business model resulted in accusations that its workers labored in substandard conditions with poor wages.
Despite claims from Shein that it does not tolerate labor-rights violations, critics believe the company won’t implement new regulations unless it pays its suppliers more to ensure compliance. Eco-Stylist, a social-enterprise group that scores companies on sustainability, gave the company a zero rating. Although the lead in clothes cannot cause immediate, drastic harm, children can get low-level exposure if they chew the jackets or purses, and their skin is constantly in contact with them. A small red purse deteriorating over time can continue to cause long-term harm. The workers who made the product, too, were exposed to greater amounts of lead. Lead can cause numerous health problems in the brain, kidneys, blood system, and nervous system at varying levels of exposure.