U.S. Consumer Product Safety CommissionMcDonald's recalled 12 million Shrek glasses because of cadmium. The federal government later said the glasses were safe.
For many consumers, 2010 was the first time they had ever heard of cadmium in children's products like jewelry.
At the beginning of the year, an Associated Press investigation found high levels of the toxic metal in charm bracelets sold at national retailers, spurring the chairman of the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission to advise parents to keep cheap metal baubles away from kids. Recalls quickly followed; in June, McDonald's pulled 12 million "Shrek" drinking glasses. By fall, California and three other states had banned cadmium in children's jewelry.
As consumer advocates and environmental groups pressed the commission to adopt mandatory cadmium limits, the agency in October announced it would instead turn to an independent standards-setting group to draft voluntary restrictions. Agency scientists suggested an "acceptable daily intake" of cadmium that was three times greater than what was previously considered safe. Under the new standard, those Shrek glasses were safe, the agency said.
Now, in 2011, the commission must decide whether the voluntary standards, expected this year, pass muster. It must also consider a petition to ban cadmium in children's products, especially jewelry. The petitioners, which include the Sierra Club and the Oakland-based Center for Environmental Health, have called for mandatory restrictions similar to those for lead.
The proposed voluntary standards and those sought by petitioners are at odds.
Cadmium is a known carcinogen that builds up in bodies for years. It can damage lungs and kidneys, and weaken bones. People typically absorb small amounts of cadmium in food and tobacco. Children are especially vulnerable to the heavy metal and risk additional exposure if they bite, suck or swallow cadmium-tainted jewelry.
The commission is working with ASTM International to develop a cadmium exposure limit that the agency could then turn into a mandatory standard, said agency spokesman Scott Wolfson. An exposure limit would be based on soluble cadmium, or how much a child would absorb if an item were ingested.
The petitioners, on the other hand, want a stricter standard – an item's total cadmium content. If the commission cannot determine an appropriate level, they said, it should temporarily adopt the total content limits for lead.
At the heart of this debate is how to determine the safety of – and thereby how to regulate – heavy metals in jewelry.
Commission "staff conducted testing and research into whether there is enough evidence to support establishing a total content limit for cadmium, and it was not supported by the science at this time," Wolfson said in an e-mail.
The commission's recommendation is to measure cadmium's solubility over 24 hours. The European Union uses the same test but over two hours.
Center for Environmental HealthStaff from the Center for Environmental Health test jewelry and toys for lead using an X-ray fluorescence analyzer.
Variables like time are one reason a total content standard is preferable, said Charles Margulis, spokesman for the Center for Environmental Health. The center routinely tests jewelry for the state and consumers, and helped craft California's lead and cadmium bans.
"It's safer to use a total weight because then you know exactly what you're getting," Margulis said. "There are no arguments about how many hours is it going to degrade, how long do you have to test. It's much more straight forward. If you know there's only X amount in it, then only X amount can possibly leach out."
The Fashion Jewelry and Accessories Trade Association, which is chairing the ASTM committee for voluntary cadmium standards, believes it's found a way to marry the two methods. The group's research shows that a total cadmium content of 2,000 parts per million would result in a soluble level well within the commission's recommendation, said Executive Director Brent Cleaveland.
If cadmium were also measured by total content, widely used X-ray fluorescence analyzers could test for it simultaneously with lead. This is critical, both supporters and critics of the commission's proposal say, because it keeps costs down and simplifies compliance.
Of the four states that currently regulate cadmium, two use a soluble standard and two – including California – use a total content standard. Nationally, lead is regulated by total content.
"It's a real mess, and it needs to be standardized," Cleaveland said. "If this gets endorsed by ASTM and CPSC, we were thinking our plan would be to go to California and start saying, 'Here's new science. Let's mend the current law to reflect this new science.'"
Cleaveland would face an uphill battle here. California's large market share often means manufacturers, vendors and retailers acquiesce to the state's tougher regulations.
"If they want to sell their jewelry in California, they're going to have this stricter standard that's a mandate," said Elise Thurau, legislative director for Sen. Fran Pavley, D-Santa Monica, who authored the state's laws on lead and cadmium in jewelry.
The science wasn't there when California and Congress approved lead restrictions in children's products, Cleaveland said. Although his group and others would like lead standards based on solubility as well, he said, "There's nothing to do with it … the standards are what they are."
Total content standards were able to garner political support because they were easier for Congress to understand, said Margulis, of the Center for Environmental Health.
"They happen to have gotten it right," he said. "I'm not convinced they did it because it was right."
Come August, the federal limit for lead in children's products will drop from 300 ppm to 100 ppm, unless the commission finds it is not technologically feasible. Wolfson, of the Consumer Product Safety Commission, said he expects the subject to be on the commissioners' agenda when they return in January.
The agency received dozens of comments from retailers and manufacturers – almost all saying such low lead content was impossible or could not be achieved consistently. Those claims have been disputed by groups like the Center for Environmental Health, which submitted test results for more than 2,000 children's products that already test below 100 parts per million.