Dina ElBoghdady
January 11, 2012

More than a dozen of the most popular retailers have stopped selling jewelry that contains more than trace levels of a toxic metal called cadmium, accepting a new standard that consumer advocates say is tougher than the one endorsed by Washington.

Under the terms of a legal settlement reached in California, the retail chains — including trendy Target, high-end Saks and teen favorites such as Gap, Aeropostale, Wet Seal and Forever 21 — instructed their suppliers to limit the cadmium levels in jewelry.

The settlements kicked in Dec. 31, just weeks after the federal Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) said it was satisfied with an alternative voluntary approach that the industry helped craft for jewelry marketed to children using the government’s scientific research. There is no federally endorsed standard for adult jewelry.

While high-profile recalls of lead-laden toys and jewelry have captured the national spotlight in recent years, cadmium is emerging as the next big threat along the periodic table. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that cadmium can damage the bones and multiple organs. The government has identified it as a known carcinogen that stays in the body for years and accumulates. In jewelry, it’s often used because it’s a cheap, soft metal that melts easily at low temperatures.

While Congress passed legislation in 2008 that forced manufacturers to nearly purge lead from children’s products, no such mandate exists for cadmium, leaving federal regulators, consumer advocates and the industry to navigate the issue on their own.

The California group that negotiated the settlement with retailers and suppliers said the approach backed by the CPSC does not cast a wide enough net or embrace the toughest standards.

“Our goal is to change the whole industry and set a standard that’s legally binding,” said Caroline Cox, research director of the Center for Environmental Health in California. “The settlements that we have reached are just the beginning because we have another 30 or 40 companies that we’re hoping will sign onto similar agreements.”

In 2010, the Center for Environmental Health sued more than two dozen retailers and suppliers alleging that they exposed consumers to excessive levels of cadmium in jewelry without providing the warning labels required by a landmark California state disclosure law that governs certain toxic chemicals.

One of the retailers, Tween Brands, settled its case early last year by agreeing not to sell any jewelry that contains more than 0.03 percent cadmium. Another 26 retailers and jewelry suppliers soon followed and agreed to stop selling such jewelry starting Dec. 31, 2011. The agreements defined jewelry as everything from bracelets to shoe ornaments.

While the settlements apply only to the jewelry sold in California stores, the retailers agreed to adopt the approach nationwide, the Center for Environmental Health said. It would be financially and logistically disruptive to segregate their products for a California-only market.

Cox said she’s most proud of the fact that the settlements cover jewelry marketed to children and adults.

“Kids wear anything,” she said. “And adults face risks too. Cadmium is particularly problematic for women of child-bearing age because it has the ability to act like a hormone disruptor.”

By contrast, the standard that the CPSC helped craft is limited to jewelry marketed to children12 and younger in part because that’s the age group that is most likely to suck on jewelry or swallow it. A government study found that kids ages 6 to 11 have especially high levels of cadmium in their urine, especially girls — possibly because girls often suffer from iron deficiency and iron hinders the absorption of cadmium.

The CPSC-endorsed standard also would adopt a different testing method. It too would test to determine that total cadmium content in a piece of jewelry does not exceed 0.03 percent.

But jewelry that fails that test could still make its way onto store shelves if it passes a separate “solubility” test.

This far more expensive test aims to determine if cadmium would leach into the body when swallowed. For a small metal part, the test entails dropping the piece into acid heated to about body temperature and shaking it for 24 hours — conditions meant to replicate the digestive process.

The industry said this second test is necessary because it is more reliable and more telling. Instead of testing for how much cadmium is in the jewelry, it tests for how much cadmium would actually be absorbed into the body, which is what matters most from a safety perspective, said Brent Cleaveland, executive director of the Fashion Jewelry and Accessories Trade Association and head of the panel that crafted the voluntary standard.

If the cadmium doesn’t leach out, then it poses no health risks and therefore could not be regulated by the CPSC because it can’t be defined as a hazardous substance.