On the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s priority list of the 275 most toxic substances in the environment, the heavy metal cadmium is ranked seventh. Unfortunately, in an investigative report, the Associated Press found that cadmium is being used in large quantities to make children’s jewelry and other products that are sold in the United States. The country of origin for almost all of these products is China.
In its investigation, the AP purchased 103 pieces of children’s jewelry from stores such as Wal-Mart and Claire’s in New York, Ohio, Texas, and California. The jewelry was then analyzed for cadmium content and tested for toxicity in a method that replicates the leaching of toxins from an object by stomach acid.
Of the 102 items, 12 percent contained at least 10 percent cadmium, an unacceptably high level of the toxic metal. Unfortunately, several other children’s items tested contained as much as 91 percent cadmium.
A patchwork of federal consumer protection regulations does nothing to keep these nuggets of cadmium from U.S. store shelves. “If the products were painted toys, they would face a recall. If they were industrial garbage, they could qualify as hazardous waste. But since there are no cadmium restrictions on jewelry, such items are sold legally,” the AP report said.
Bruce Fowler, a cadmium specialist and toxicologist with the CDC, told the AP, “There’s nothing positive that you can say about this metal. It’s a poison.”
Cadmium has long been classified as a carcinogen and, like lead, it can diminish brain function and development in young children. The item doesn’t have to be swallowed to be toxic. Children who bite or suck on jewelry made with cadmium may receive several low-level doses over a long period of time and suffer the cumulative effects.
So why is the metal being used so prevalently in U.S.-bound imports, including products made for children?
Most evidence points toward the Consumer Product Safety Commission’s tougher limits on lead in consumer products. Last year, the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act drastically lowered legally permissible levels of lead in children’s products to no more than 0.03 percent of the total content. That move, however, prompted Chinese manufacturers to come up with replacements for lead. So they turned to plentiful and cheap supplies of cadmium.
Although the CPSC’s new rules set limits for cadmium content in children’s products, it did so only for painted toys and not jewelry. Because of the loophole, toxic cadmium trinkets are flooding into the U.S. market. Some retailers are taking action to remove the products from their shelves while others maintain a business-first attitude.
Claire’s, a jewelry chain with 3,000 stores across the U.S., Europe and Japan, carries 2 of the charms tested by the AP. Testing found that the “Best Friends” charms contained 89 percent and 91 percent cadmium.
According to a press statement, the jewelry chain said that children’s jewelry is not legally required to pass cadmium leaching tests, but that it would discontinue sales of the cadmium jewelry “out of an abundance of caution.”
According to another AP report, Xu Hongli, a cadmium specialist with Asian Metal Ltd., said that using cadmium alloys in production is “a relatively common practice” for manufacturers in the some Chinese regions. “Some of their products contain 90 percent of cadmium or higher,” she told the AP.
The AP reports says that “a patchwork of federal consumer protection regulations” doesn’t prevent cadmium from finding its way into products bound for the U.S.