Cadmium in Jewelry? What?

The world is abuzz with reports of major retailers including Claire’s and Wal-mart stocking the shelves with children’s jewelry containing cadmium, a highly toxic heavy metal. The report that triggered this fury of interest in the safety of jewelry products was released by the Associated Press on January 12, 2010, following confirmation that 12 out of 102 pieces of jewelry tested by the AP contained high levels of cadmium.

As politicians at the CPSC promise to investigate, fundamental questions remain. Is this really legal? Why on Earth would anyone knowingly manufacture a product to contain a substance known to cause developmental disturbances, kidney failure and death in children?

The Logic of Rulemaking in the U.S.

In 2008, President Bush signed the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act (CPSIA) into law setting new, supposedly tougher requirements on children’s products and toys.

With respect to heavy metals, the CPSIA carries 2 basic sets of requirements. The law sets limits on the total amount of lead permitted to be in children’s products in any accessible material, including surface coatings. It also restricts soluble heavy metal content in surface coatings on children’s toys.

Neither of these requirements addresses cadmium content in children’s jewelry. So, essentially in the United States, it is perfectly legal to sell children’s jewelry containing any amount of cadmium.

The only limit the CPSIA sets on cadmium is in soluble content on surface coatings on children’s toys. Soluble content refers to the limited amount of the metal that might leach out of a paint or scrapable material if you partially digest it in a very weak acid. This does not measure the total amount of the metal in the toy.

Trading One Evil for Another

Because the CPSIA bans excessive levels of lead in children’s products, manufacturers began scrambling to find alternatives. Cadmium became a surprisingly easy choice. It has many of the same physical properties of lead, it is cheap, it is legal and no one is looking for it.

When retailers or brands source products, they give manufacturers and resellers a list of requirements these products must abide by. Generally, these lists are gathered by regulatory requirements for the markets in which the products will be sold. Sometimes, these lists include what the retailer or brand has identified as hazardous.

For example, for a children’s toy sold in the U.S., a retailer might require a manufacturer to demonstrate that their products contain less than 300 parts per million total lead, 90 parts per million lead in surface coatings, 1000 parts per million phthalates, etc. They might also add requirements to the list from other regions of the world or quality-based requirements, demanding for example, that the product contain a limited amount of Nickel.

Manufacturers demonstrate compliance to these legal and business-related requirements by testing or certifying their products.

When manufacturers were faced with finding an alternative for lead, they scoured their options, considered their testing programs and chose a path forward in line with their bottomlines.

The Ridiculous Nature of It All

Putting the lack of restriction of cadmium in children’s jewelry in perspective, let’s consider the following:
  • In many U.S. States, cadmium content in packaging materials is limited to 100 parts per million.
  • In Europe, cadmium content is restricted to 100 parts per million in all plastics and surface coatings in all products.
  • In China, Europe and every other country with a similar regulation, cadmium is restricted to 100 parts per million in electronic and electrical equipment.
  • In the State of California, products that contain enough cadmium to cause an exposure are required to bear a warning label that advises consumers of their risks.
  • At the U.S. federal level, cadmium in children’s jewelry is perfectly legal.

China will look into cadmium in children’s jewelry

Information about the CPSIA