Google helped track this down. This was a california story in 2003, but we missed it. The best summary is:
CHEC Articles: Holiday Lights and Christmas Trees May Contain LeadHow much lead?
If you've been shopping for holiday lights this season, you may have noticed a warning label on some of them stating that they may contain lead.
... Wire coating and cords are usually made of PVC plastic that may contain lead. Lead is used in PVC for several reasons. For wires and cords, lead makes the plastic more flexible and reduces the risk of fire. Lead is also used in many PVC products to stabilize the color. Lead in PVC products can disintegrate into lead-laced dust.
The labels began appearing on holiday lights, as well as on electronic equipment and cords on other consumer products such as hairdryers, after a number of lawsuits were filed by an environmental advocacy organization in California.
The amount of lead in the lights and other consumer products with warning labels may vary considerably. It is not clear if the amount of lead that is released poses a risk to human health. Some tests show that lead could come off in the hands. Note that nearly all appliance cords are covered with PVC that contains lead.
We recommend the following:
* Do not allow children to handle holiday lights!
* Adults should wash hands thoroughly after handling the lights.
* [jf: I don't think there are ANY lights made anywhere but China] Avoid lights made in China and other foreign countries, where there are no restrictions against the use of lead in consumer products. Lights made in the U.S. are likely to contain smaller amounts of lead, especially in the coating....
* Do not assume that holiday lights that do not bear the warning label are lead-free. It is possible that the lights are not sold in California. California is the only state that requires the warning label.
* Older lights that have not been labeled may also contain lead.
At the University of North Carolina at Asheville, researchers had a group of students put up lights then tested the lead levels on their hands. They found the lead levels were at least 10 times greater than what is considered safe.That's a lot of lead. So much for assuming the GOP-eviscerated EPA is able to protect us.
So, to summarize, many electrical cords contain lead within the PVC covering. Chrismas lights from China (all of them) can contain quite a bit more lead since there's no effective regulation of lead in China; now that all lights come from China there's no other option for US consumers.
The GOP, including our rotten Senator Norm Coleman, has been trying to limit the ability of California to create local environmental rules that are stronger than federal mandates. The GOP is not going to support regulation of lead contamination in electrical cords; they're more likely to block this kind of warning label from appearing outside California.
Thank you California environmental pressure groups and thank you rabid attornies. In the meantime don't let children hand christmas lights, wash hands, and don't vote GOP.