LOS ANGELES — Barred from using lead in children's jewelry because of its toxicity, some Chinese manufacturers have been substituting the more dangerous heavy metal cadmium in sparkling charm bracelets and shiny pendants being sold throughout the United States, an Associated Press investigation shows.
The most contaminated piece analyzed in lab testing performed for the AP contained a startling 91 percent cadmium by weight. The cadmium content of other contaminated trinkets, all purchased at national and regional chains or franchises, tested at 89 percent, 86 percent and 84 percent by weight. The testing also showed that some items easily shed the heavy metal, raising additional concerns about the levels of exposure to children.
Cadmium is a known carcinogen. Like lead, it can hinder brain development in the very young, according to recent research.
Children don't have to swallow an item to be exposed — they can get persistent, low-level doses by regularly sucking or biting jewelry with a high cadmium content.
To gauge cadmium's prevalence in children's jewelry, the AP organized lab testing of 103 items bought in New York, Ohio, Texas and California. All but one were purchased in November or December.
The results: 12 percent of the pieces of jewelry contained at least 10 percent cadmium.
Some of the most troubling test results were for bracelet charms sold at Walmart, at the jewelry chain Claire's and at a dollar store. High amounts of cadmium also were detected in "The Princess and the Frog" movie-themed pendants.
"There's nothing positive that you can say about this metal. It's a poison," said Bruce Fowler, a cadmium specialist and toxicologist with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. On the CDC's priority list of 275 most hazardous substances in the environment, cadmium ranks No. 7.
Jewelry industry veterans in China say cadmium has been used in domestic products there for years. Zinc, the metal most cited as a replacement for lead in imported jewelry being sold in the United States, is a much safer and nontoxic alternative.
A patchwork of federal consumer protection regulations does nothing to keep these nuggets of cadmium from U.S. store shelves. If the products were painted toys, they would face a recall. If they were industrial garbage, they could qualify as hazardous waste. But since there are no cadmium restrictions on jewelry, such items are sold legally.
While the agency in charge of regulating children's products, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, has cracked down on the dangers posed by lead and products known to have killed children, such as cribs, it has never recalled an item for cadmium — even though it has received scattered complaints based on private test results for at least the past two years.
There is no definitive explanation for why children's jewelry manufacturers, virtually all from China in the items tested, are turning to cadmium.
Cadmium prices have plummeted as factories grasp for substitutes now that lead is heavily regulated under the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act of 2008.
That law set a new, stringent standard for lead in children's products: Only the very smallest amount is permissible — no more than 0.03 percent of the total content. The statute has led manufacturers to drastically reduce lead in toys and jewelry.
The law also contained the first explicit regulation of cadmium, though the standards are significantly less strict than lead and apply only to painted toys, not jewelry.
In a written statement, Wal-Mart said its considers safety a very high priority. "We consistently seek to sell only those products that meet safety and regulatory standards," Wal-Mart said. "Currently there is no required cadmium standard for children's jewelry."
Claire's said its products are tested by independent accredited third-party laboratories approved by the Consumer Product Safety Commission.
It issued a statement pointing out that children's jewelry is not required to pass a cadmium leaching test.
To determine how much cadmium a child could be exposed to, items are bathed in a solution that mimics stomach acid to see how much of the toxin would leach out after being swallowed.
The jewelry testing for AP was conducted by chemistry professor Jeff Weidenhamer of Ashland University in Ohio, who over the past few years has provided the CPSC with results showing high lead content in products that were later recalled. His lab work for AP assessed how much cadmium was in each item. Overall, 12 of the 103 items each contained at least 10 percent cadmium. Two others contained lower amounts, while the other 89 were clean.
"Clearly it seems like for a metal as toxic as cadmium, somebody ought to be watching out to make sure there aren't high levels in items that could end up in the hands of kids," said Weidenhamer.
On Sunday, CPSC spokesman Scott Wolfson said the agency would study Weidenhamer's results and attempt to buy the products with high cadmium content to "take appropriate action as quickly as possible."
Wolfson added: "Just because we haven't done a recall to this point doesn't mean we wouldn't do a recall in 2010."