Revealed: Children’s jewelry that contains toxic cadmium which causes cancer STILL on sale after federal crackdown

Read Time:12 Minute, 31 Second

By Associated Press Reporter

PUBLISHED:23:07 EST, 14  October 2012| UPDATED:23:53 EST, 14 October 2012


Federal regulators failed to pursue recalls  after they found cadmium-tainted jewelry on store shelves, despite their vow to  keep the toxic trinkets out of children’s hands, an Associated Press  investigation shows.

Officials at the U.S. Consumer Product Safety  Commission also have not warned parents about the contaminated items already in  their homes.

More than two years after the AP revealed  that some Chinese factories were substituting cadmium for banned lead, the CPSC  still hasn’t determined the extent of the contamination.

Toxic trinkets: These pieces of jewelry, which were marketed for small children, contain high levels of toxic cadmium  

Toxic trinkets: These pieces of jewelry, which were  marketed for small children, contain high levels of toxic cadmium

There are no known injuries or deaths due to  cadmium in children’s  jewelry, but contaminated jewelry can poison in two ways:  slow and  steady through habitual licking and biting, or acutely through  swallowing. The CPSC estimates that several thousand kids are treated  annually  at U.S. emergency rooms for accidentally ingesting jewelry.

Once in the body, cadmium stays for decades.  If enough accumulates, it can cripple kidneys and bones– and cause  cancer.

Contaminated jewelry is surely less prevalent  in the U.S. than before its widespread presence was first documented. However,  rings, bracelets and pendants containing cadmium and marketed for preteen girls  were purchased over the last year.

The AP and representatives of two consumer  groups were able to buy the items in Los Angeles, suburban San Francisco,  central Ohio and upstate New York.

Despite touting its work as a model of  proactive regulation, the agency tasked with protecting Americans from dangerous  everyday products often has been reactive — or inactive.

Take a ‘children’s jewelry sweep’ the CPSC  conducted at stores nationwide. Testing showed that six different items on  shelves — including one referred to as a ‘baby bracelet’ — were hazardous by  the agency’s guidelines. Yet the agency neither pursued recalls nor warned the  public about the items, records and interviews show.

In addition, the CPSC allowed Wal-Mart and  Meijer, a smaller Midwest chain, to pull from shelves jewelry that flunked  safety testing without telling parents who had previously purchased such items.  And it did not follow through on evidence it developed that cadmium jewelry  remains on sale in local shops.

Agency staffers have consistently sided with  firms that argued their high-cadmium items shouldn’t be recalled — not because  they were safe in the hands of kids, but because they were deemed not to meet  the legal definition of a ‘children’s product.’ Also, the CPSC trusted retailers  and jewelry importers to self-police their inventories for cadmium, but did not  check whether they had done so for at least a year.

Damage control: Inez Tenenbaum, the chairman of the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, claims she has worked to curtail toxic jewelry 

Damage control: Inez Tenenbaum, the chairman of the U.S.  Consumer Product Safety Commission, claims she has worked to curtail toxic  jewelry

In response to AP’s reporting, the CPSC said  it did all it could given limited resources. A spokesman credited the agency’s  focus on intercepting jewelry before it got onto shelves as the reason that  cadmium did not become the widespread scourge that lead was several years  ago.

To be sure, the CPSC does have  challenges.

Though the agency’s resources have been  growing, by federal standards the CPSC is a minnow — a $115 million budget  supports just 545 full-time employees responsible for regulating thousands of  products.

And, under agency rules, it is difficult to  mandate that a firm recall an item.

While CPSC Chairman Inez Tenenbaum has  claimed credit for reducing the presence of cadmium in children’s jewelry, in  fact, faster and more forceful efforts have come from elsewhere.

For example, major retailers including  Wal-Mart and Target began requiring safety testing — not the CPSC.

And new laws in six states and national legal  settlements — not the CPSC — created strict, binding limits on cadmium in  jewelry.

Putting it  to the test

To examine the agency’s performance on the  cadmium issue, the AP conducted three rounds of testing, analyzed hundreds of  agency test results and reviewed hundreds of pages of internal documents  obtained under the federal Freedom of Information Act. Dozens of regulators,  scientists, members of industry, or consumer advocates were  interviewed.

National chain stores — which closely manage  their public images and invest in product testing — appear to have cleaned up  their inventories. Shops that sell discount jewelry are a different  story.

The AP made three visits to a dozen small  shops in Los Angeles’ jewelry district during a 19-month period ending in March.  A reporter bought bracelets, necklaces and charm bracelets that salespeople said  would make a good gift for a kindergartner.

Self-policing: Claire's is one of the national chains, along with Wal-Mart, has stopped selling Chinese-made jewelry that has been contaminated 

Self-policing: Claire’s is one of the national chains,  along with Wal-Mart, has stopped selling Chinese-made jewelry that has been  contaminated

Twenty of 64 items purchased were at least 5  percent cadmium, and often much higher, according to tests using an Olympus  Innov-X X-ray fluorescence gun that estimates what metals are in jewelry.  Subsequent lab testing showed that several pendants were hazardous based on CPSC  guidelines. One was 85 percent cadmium.

Additional proof that cadmium jewelry was  being sold comes from testing by two advocacy groups, the California-based  Center for Environmental Health and Michigan-based Ecology Center. Lab results  indicated that trinkets bought at Halloween costume stores last fall in the San  Francisco Bay area and discounters in New York and Ohio over the winter were  between 20 and 30 percent cadmium.

While the items would appeal to kids, they  weren’t recalled, apparently because the CPSC did not consider them children’s  products. If jewelry isn’t ‘primarily intended’ for kids 12 and under, it’s an  adult product — and adult products have no cadmium restrictions.

Results of the testing by AP and the advocacy  groups reinforce ongoing reporting on the larger question – whether the CPSC has  kept its word on taking the strongest steps possible to clean up store shelves  and children’s jewelry boxes.

In fact, the CPSC has been aware that cadmium  jewelry was being sold in some discount shops since at least September 2010.  That’s when the agency’s lab reported hazardous readings from a children’s  pendant bought at a small shop in New York City.

As with jewelry AP bought in Los Angeles,  there were no manufacturer markings on the packaging – and that made it  difficult to track the pendant to its source.

The agency’s investigator bought all the  samples at the shop, but didn’t look to see whether the pendant was sold  elsewhere, CPSC spokesman Scott Wolfson said.

‘We’ve got to make some tough decisions with  our investigators in terms of when they stay on the trail,’ Wolfson said. ‘There  needs to be a rationale for it.’

Slow repose from the  Consumer Products Safety Commission

In January 2010, Tenenbaum mobilized her  agency in reaction to AP’s initial investigation. She told parents to toss cheap  metal trinkets and promised to investigate all high-cadmium jewelry the agency  learned about.

While five jewelry recalls followed, none  began at the agency’s initiative. The first three covered products AP  highlighted; the last two came after companies approached the CPSC. All the  recalls were voluntary.

Then the recalls stopped, though not because  the CPSC thought cadmium was gone from the marketplace.

Still on shelves: Even after the Consumer Product Safety Commission promised to crack down on toxic jewelry, it's still available on store shelves across the nation 

Still on shelves: Even after the Consumer Product Safety  Commission promised to crack down on toxic jewelry, it’s still available on  store shelves across the nation

Instead of clearing contaminated products  from store shelves, the agency focused on a policy of restricting future flow.  At first, that meant warning Asian manufacturers to stop substituting cadmium  for lead. Later, the agency started scattered cargo checks at U.S. ports and  pressed a private-sector group led by the jewelry industry to adopt voluntary  cadmium limits.

It took nearly two years for those standards  to be enacted. And while several cadmium jewelry shipments were intercepted,  with just 19 inspectors at 15 ports, the agency touches a minuscule fraction of  the billions of consumer goods that enter the U.S. each year.

At a product safety conference in March,  Tenenbaum claimed victory: ‘The proactive steps we have taken in China, at the  ports, and in the standards environment have stopped cadmium from being the next  lead.’

But it wasn’t until early 2011, a full year  after AP’s original report, that the agency had began seriously checking  children’s jewelry on store shelves. Even then, the scale of sampling was not  great enough to draw broad conclusions.

Tenenbaum said in an interview that  inspectors didn’t check store shelves earlier because agency scientists had not  decided what cadmium levels would qualify a piece of jewelry as hazardous. And  they haven’t checked more since 2011 due to other priorities, particularly items  that children have died using, such as faulty cribs and ATVs.

Damage  control

Before 2010, the consumer agency ignored  scattered reports of cadmium-contaminated jewelry. Emails obtained under FOIA  show an agency working in the days immediately following AP’s initial report to  turn revelations about past indifference into a success story. But a  reconstruction of the ensuing events suggests an agency that started out strong  soon began to back off.

Just six months in office in early 2010,  Tenenbaum found in cadmium an opportunity to contrast herself with her  predecessor, who was cast as weak and ineffective during the 2007-08 Chinese  product scares.

‘These are a priority for the Chairman, so  they are to be given priority,’ a senior official in CPSC’s compliance division  emailed testing lab colleagues about samples of bracelet charms on January 14,  2010.

Two weeks later, the agency announced the  first-ever cadmium-related recall — 55,000 ‘The Princess and The Frog’  movie-themed pendants sold at Walmarts.

Almost immediately, Tenenbaum was shaping the  narrative the agency would tell and retell — that fast action allowed it to  ‘get ahead’ of the cadmium problem.

By early 2011, the CPSC had finally done a  national ‘children’s jewelry sweep’ to gauge what was on store shelves. That  February, CPSC chemists reported a troubling analysis of three jewelry samples  bought by agency inspectors. Testing showed that hazardous amounts of cadmium  would dissolve into the stomach acid of a child who swallowed the  jewelry.

Over the next few weeks, three more items  failed the test, including the baby bracelet.

While the number of jewelry pieces with  hazardous readings was not great — 711 samples were screened — some of the six  items had even more alarming cadmium readings than jewelry that had been  recalled. One was 27 times higher than the agency’s acceptable limit.

Yet the CPSC neither informed consumers nor  initiated recall efforts. Instead, the agency asked a distributor where two of  the items were found to destroy its inventory. For another item, the inspector  only rounded up all samples in the store.

Spokesman Wolfson gave several reasons why  the agency took no further action. Two of the items were discontinued in 2005,  according to the distributor, which meant ‘a recall was not warranted’ —  despite the 2011 purchase.

One had packaging that didn’t identify the  manufacturer or distributor. And in the three other cases, field inspectors had  picked up jewelry that they thought was for children but that agency  headquarters decided was actually for adults.

‘We firmly believe that we took the right  action based upon the work we did and the information we gathered,’ Wolfson  said.

Because there were no recalls, the agency  can’t reveal what the products were or where they were bought.

Aside from the jewelry sweep, in at least two  cases the agency let major retailers avoid informing the public that they had  pulled jewelry after their testing turned up cadmium.

In May 2010, Wal-Mart announced it had  removed ‘the few products’ that failed checks it started doing on children’s  jewelry; it did not identify the items. The retailing giant had started running  a European Union safety test that was similar to the stomach-acid test the CPSC  used.

Wal-Mart spokesman Lorenzo Lopez said that  despite failing a safety test, the items were not dangerous. He would not share  the results.

‘We’re talking about components within these  items that just didn’t rise to the level where it posed a safety risk,’ he  said.

Because Wal-Mart unilaterally yanked the  products, no public notification was required by CPSC – and Wal-Mart gave  none.

The agency never pressed for a recall of  items that had already been sold.

A similar scenario occurred at the Midwest  retailer Meijer.

The CPSC learned of jewelry with hazardous  test readings but, despite a pledge to follow any leads about cadmium jewelry,  didn’t open an investigation until AP began asking about the items six months  later.

The agency never pressed for a recall because  it decided the jewelry was primarily intended for teens or adults, not  children.

Yet on the sales receipt, the items were  listed as ‘girls jewelry’ and ‘girls accessories’ and a Meijer spokesman  described them as “children’s jewelry.” He said they were briefly removed from  store shelves, then returned, then pulled again when AP began  inquiring.

Nowhere were the agency’s conclusions more  curious than the biggest recall of 2010 — 12 million drinking glasses sold by  McDonald’s to promote the animated movie ‘Shrek Forever After.’ Cadmium used in  red decorations on the glass could rub onto a child’s hand, and eventually get  into the mouth.

Months after the recall, the agency said the  glasses shouldn’t have been pulled because they were not mainly for  kids.

And then there was the agency’s assessment of  brightly colored bracelet charms shaped like flip flops. Sold exclusively by  Wal-Mart, the charms were 90 percent cadmium.

‘Before you decide for certain that you want  to recall the Flip Flop Charms, take a look at the image of the product in the  attached email,’ Wal-Mart’s then-director of product safety and compliance, Kyle  Holifield, wrote the CPSC in January 2010. ‘There just isn’t anything about the  product itself or its packaging to indicate that it was designed or intended  primarily for use by children.’

Holifield’s email only included the front of  the packaging. The back of the packaging says the charms are “For ages 3 and  over.”

According to guidelines drafted by Wal-Mart’s  own product safety staff and endorsed by the jewelry industry, such labeling  statements make jewelry a children’s product.

That should have made the charms subject to  cadmium limits — and eligible for a recall.

In a written statement, Wal-Mart said: ‘When  CPSC asked us about this item, we considered it an adult jewelry item because it  was displayed alongside other adult jewelry-making items, and not intended for  use by children.’

Even CPSC field investigators who collected  items for sale during the ‘children’s jewelry sweep’ were confused by what  qualifies as children’s jewelry under agency guidelines. At headquarters, CPSC  experts decided some of the products were not for children after all.

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Categories: Consumer Products, Emerging Contaminants, Environmental

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