Why it Matters

Consumers are being needlessly exposed to toxic metals such as lead and cadmium in jewelry. Thanks, in part to Center for Environmental Health’s (CEH) tireless work, we are pleased to report that the likelihood of any lead in jewelry is now extremely rare at best. But our work is far from over. Cadmium is still commonly found in jewelry without consumers knowledge or consent. This is particularly concerning because jewelry is something that many of us handle every day. Pregnant mothers and women of childbearing age that typically purchase these items are especially at risk because these metals can lead to problems getting pregnant, difficulties maintaining a pregnancy, and the increased likelihood of birth defects.

Both cadmium and lead have also been linked to cancer and kidney damage. Cadmium exposure is particularly a problem for young children who may suck on and even accidentally swallow tainted items. These toxins accumulate during childhood and can lead to health problems later. Lead was once so commonly used in jewelry, even with the knowledge of how deadly it was. In 2006, a four year old died days after swallowing a metal charm that was made almost entirely of lead. Numerous other children have been poisoned by jewelry containing high levels of lead.

What We Did and are Doing

Since 2003, CEH has led the effort to protect children and others from lead-tainted jewelry. And we won. We began widespread jewelry testing in 2003, and in 2004 we filed the first legal action in the country to stop the sale of lead-tainted jewelry. Our legal action spurred the largest product recall in U.S. history and led to a landmark agreement with Macy’s, Target, Wal-Mart and over 200 other companies to protect children from unsafe and potentially fatal exposures to lead. Our legal settlement formed the basis for the tough jewelry law adopted by California and later enacted as part of the federal law on lead in children’s products.

Our Prop 65 lawsuits have ended the use of lead in jewelry for children and set state and national standards for adult jewelry. Our more recent testing of thousands of pieces of jewelry showed that the industry changed dramatically: more than 95% of the pieces tested following our Prop 65 legal agreements were safer, without any lead problems.

In February 2010, CEH initiated the nation’s first legal action against stores and jewelry distributors after testing found high levels of cadmium in jewelry from several national retailers, including stores that cater to young girls. CEH entered into legal agreements with 36 companies, including major retailers like Claires, Gap, Target, and Hot Topic, that applied California’s strict limits on the level of cadmium in children’s jewelry to all jewelry including jewelry marketed to preteens, teens and adults.

Despite these past legal victories, in 2018, CEH found high levels of cadmium in jewelry sold by seven Bay Area retailers, including American One, Burlington Coat Factory, Nordstrom Rack, Papaya, Tilly’s, Walgreens and Ross. Over half the high cadmium jewelry items came from Ross. CEH sent legal notices to 17 companies for violating the consumer protection law by failing to warn customers.

In response to our findings, Papaya said it considers cadmium in its products a serious problem and has recalled products where contamination was found. Nordstrom said the company is “reaching out to these vendors to make them aware of the situation and get more information on these items.” And Ross said it “addressed this issue with [their] supplier.”

CEH continues to monitor the jewelry industry for compliance with state and federal law. While we have found an overall high rate of compliance, our work has exposed numerous violations of the law and helped ensure that companies take jewelry off the shelves when they fail to protect children and adults from lead hazards. Retailers and distributors have proven that cadmium and lead are completely unnecessary ingredients in jewelry. Manufacturers must cease using these toxic metals in their products, and retailers should stop the sale of all tainted jewelry now.

What You Can Do

Because of the serious risks, CEH advises parents to avoid all cheap metal jewelry, especially for younger children. Look for jewelry made of safer materials and buy from trusted sources. Keep adult costume jewelry away from kids, and if you’re pregnant or may become pregnant, avoid cheap metal jewelry.


CEH Press Release: Toxic Fashion: New Testing Finds Major Retailers Selling Jewelry Laced with Cadmium
CEH In the News: Toxic Metal Found in Chain Stores’ Jewelry
CEH In the News: Why Cadmium is Still Used in Jewelry
CEH Report: Illegal and Unhealthy: Lead in California Jewelry
CEH Report: Cadmium: Another Toxic Threat in California Jewelry