YIWU, China — For China's low-cost jewelry makers, it was an open trade secret: The metal cadmium is shiny, strong and malleable at low temperatures, regardless of its health hazards. And it's cheap.
Despite the risks, manufacturers in factories ringing this city on China's east coast say their top priority is profit. So offering cut-rate goods often means using lower-quality materials, including cadmium, which is known to cause cancer.
"Business is business, and it's all up to our client," said He Huihua, manager of the Suiyuan Jewelry Shop at International Trade City in Yiwu, a sprawling wholesale mecca where sellers pitch their wares in hopes of landing a lucrative export contract.
He spoke from a small cubicle with rows of dangling metal earrings and key chains hanging on the wall. Elsewhere, brooches, necklaces, charms and other baubles shone under the market's lights.
"We just make what our clients order. If they pay more, we use the better raw material, and vice versa. From a few cents to a few dollars, we can make the same style of jewelry product with a different raw material."
Asked what he thought about the health risks associated with cadmium and other toxic metals, he said: "I can't be overly concerned about that."
Long-standing concerns about the safety of Chinese exports flared anew this week after an investigation by the Associated Press found that 12 of 103 pieces of mainly Chinese-made children's jewelry bought in the United States contained at least 10 percent cadmium, some in the 80-90 percent range. Two had less than 10 percent and the rest had none.
The findings prompted retail giant Wal-Mart Stores Inc. to remove the products cited by AP from its stores in the United States. On Tuesday, the jewelry and accessories chain Claire's, with nearly 3,000 locations in North America and Europe, announced that it, too, would stop selling any item cited in the AP investigation.
A metals expert in a Yiwu jewelry factory said some raw-material suppliers sell an alloy containing up to 90 percent cadmium.
Interviews with more than a dozen manufacturers and sellers in Yiwu confirm that cadmium is a common ingredient in the jewelry being churned out by local factories and piled high in that city's wholesale markets.