LOS ANGELES — The Consumer Product Safety Commission, which has been scrambling to deal with risks posed by cadmium since high levels were found in some children's jewelry, said it won't insist on mandatory limits for an element that can damage kidneys and bones. Instead, the agency will defer to an independent, private-sector group that has been drafting voluntary limits for several months.
The 12 million "Shrek" glasses pulled by McDonald's last spring amid federal concerns about cadmium did not have unsafe levels of the toxic metal, judging by revised intake limits regulators unveiled Tuesday.
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 Walmart stores. Four more recalls followed, implicating nearly 300,000 pieces of jewelry; the agency also leaned on McDonald's to pull the "Shrek" movie-themed drinking glasses.
Tuesday's long-awaited guidance from commission staff suggests an "acceptable daily intake" of cadmium that is more than triple what it had previously considered the maximum safe level. Based on further research, it raised the level from 0.03 micrograms per day for every kilogram of a child's body weight to 0.1 micrograms per kilogram per day.
The agency recommended that level in hopes that the private-sector group — which includes representatives of the jewelry industry and consumer groups — will adopt it. The level is in line with recommendations from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for the threshold below which no health effects are expected, provided the exposure lasts less than one year.
"The scientific guidance provided by CPSC staff is highly protective of children," Tenenbaum told reporters. She said that the agency was obliged to let a legitimate voluntary standard process unfold, but that if the levels weren't satisfactory, mandatory rules could come.
The guidance is aimed at children's jewelry rather than glassware, but under it, the CPSC would not have considered any of the four "Shrek" designs on the McDonald's glasses sold this year to be unsafe, according to Jay Howell, director of the agency's office of hazard identification and reduction. Using its earlier standard, the agency found cadmium levels in one of the designs posed an unacceptable risk; McDonald's ended up recalling all four.
Effects of cadmium
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.