The long-awaited guidance from the Consumer Product Safety Commission suggests an acceptable level of cadmium, an element that can damage kidneys and bones. But it's leaving the question of exactly what those limits will be to an independent group that has been drafting guidelines for several months. The group includes members of the jewelry industry, consumer advocates and the agency.
Though the CPSC is looking for companies to police themselves, regulators would still be free to push for recalls.
Cadmium accumulates in the body, stays for years, and at high enough levels can cause kidneys to leak vital protein and bones to soften so much they snap. People absorb trace amounts just by eating leafy greens or smoking cigarettes; the most likely scenario with jewelry is that children would increase the burden on their bodies if they bite or suck on pendants or bracelets which easily shed the toxic metal.
Cadmium exposure is of particular concern for children. Growing bodies readily absorb what they ingest, and several studies have concluded that as cadmium exposure increases, kids are more likely to have learning disabilities or lower IQs.
Tuesday's guidance represents a shift for an agency that reacted aggressively to a January investigation in which The Associated Press revealed that some Chinese jewelry manufacturers were substituting high levels of cadmium for lead, which recent federal law effectively banned.
Agency Chairman Inez Tenenbaum went so far as to advise parents to get rid of all cheap metal trinkets. Within weeks, the CPSC announced its first-ever recall of jewelry due to cadmium, this one involving Disney-branded items sold at Walmarts. Four more recalls followed, implicating nearly 300,000 pieces of jewelry; the agency also leaned on McDonald's to pull millions of "Shrek" movie-themed drinking glasses.
There have been no reports of children with health complications from cadmium in the U.S. due to jewelry - though doctors have not looked because they didn't know the metal was in products children handle. The only child's death attributed to cadmium was a nearly 3-year-old Canadian boy; researchers concluded his exposure came from home items such as paint, batteries or cadmium-electroplated utensils.
Jewelry makers say low levels of cadmium have been used for years without any problems. The best explanation for the shift to making items that are predominantly cadmium is that Chinese manufacturers needed a cheap, workable alternative to lead - and cadmium prices had plummeted due to excess supplies from the shriveling nickel-cadmium battery market.
Federal law allows the agency to target products it deems a danger to children, but its approach had an improvisational feel: Regulators never publicly stated what level of the metal would prompt them to act. The lack of a target number frustrated jewelry importers and manufacturers.
Instead of forcing change by pursuing formal, mandatory limits on cadmium, the agency on Tuesday opted to follow the approach favored by businesses that advocate self-policing through voluntary standards. That means the CPSC is deferring to the respected standard-setting group ASTM International, which several months ago convened representatives of the jewelry industry, consumer advocates and the agency to write new cadmium-in-jewelry guidelines.
Even before the agency held its first hearing on cadmium, in April, major retailers including Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and Target Corp. decided to require suppliers of children's goods to show their products passed a cadmium test used by the European Union. Jewelry importers and manufacturers soon rallied around the same testing regimen.
Commission staff, however, suggested the test wasn't rigorous enough, and that belief was reflected Tuesday. While most children would face cadmium exposure by biting or sucking on jewelry, regulators wanted to guard against a worst-case scenario in which a child swallows an item. To replicate that, testing methods measure how much cadmium would be dissolved by stomach acid and thus potentially absorbed into the body. The European test favored by industry lasts for two hours; the CPSC's guidance says the test should last 24 hours.
Under the CPSC's latest thinking, jewelry should be exposed to the test for a full day because of "data showing that ingested items sometimes remain in the stomach for several days," according to a report provided by the agency.
Notably absent from the agency's new official policy: Guidance on cadmium in glassware, an area where the CPSC ventured in June by leaning on McDonald's to recall Shrek glasses because one from the set of four leached out enough cadmium during normal handling to create a health hazard for a typical 6-year-old.
So far, Democratic leaders in Congress have decided not to press legislation, deferring instead to the agency. Not so the states: Laws limiting cadmium in jewelry have been passed in four states, including California, which because of its influence on the national market effectively becomes the standard in the absence of formal national rules.
The key difference between California's new law and what the CPSC unveiled Tuesday is this: California's limits are based on how much cadmium a piece of jewelry contains (its "total content"), while the CPSC focused instead on how much cadmium a child might be exposed to. The total content approach is far more strict.
For example, 14 of the 103 items tested for AP as part of its original investigation in January would have failed the California limit of no more than 0.03 percent cadmium (one "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" charm, later recalled, was 91 percent cadmium). But several of those 14 would have passed the CPSC's proposed test.