ADDITION Cadmium Jewelry
Tony Dejak  /  AP
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.
updated 1/14/2010 9:25:00 AM ET 2010-01-14T14:25:00

America's product safety agency has issued an unprecedented warning to parents: Don't give your children cheap Chinese-made metal jewelry. And if they already have some, toss it because it could contain hazardous levels of heavy metals such as lead and cadmium.

Writing in a blog posting Wednesday evening, the chairman of the Consumer Product Safety Commission noted that children who chew, suck on or swallow a bracelet charm or necklace may be endangering their health.

"I have a message for parents, grandparents and caregivers: Do not allow young children to be given or to play with cheap metal jewelry, especially when they are unsupervised," wrote Inez Tenenbaum, the chairman of the Consumer Product Safety Commission.

In making the recommendation, Tenenbaum cited an investigation by The Associated Press which reported high cadmium levels in kids' jewelry items imported from China including bracelet charms from Walmart and Claire's stores.

Lab tests conducted for the AP on 103 pieces of low-priced children's jewelry found 12 items with cadmium content above 10 percent of the total weight. Several of those shed very high amounts of the metal when analyzed for how much of the toxin a child might be exposed to after swallowing the item.

Like lead, cadmium can hinder brain development in young children, according to recent research. It also causes cancer.

"To prevent young children from possibly being exposed to lead, cadmium or any other hazardous heavy metal, take the jewelry away," Tenenbaum wrote.

While neither Tenenbaum nor an agency spokesman would outright say not to buy cheap children's jewelry, the inference was clear.

For items already in homes, "Parents should 'safely dispose' of the jewelry following state and local environmental laws, and not resell it through online auctions or to a thrift store," CPSC spokesman Scott Wolfson said.

Even during the height of product recalls from China several years ago — when millions of items of jewelry or painted toys with high lead levels were taken off store shelves — the CPSC did not issue such a public warning. Under the administration of President Barack Obama, and with Tenenbaum replacing commissioner Nancy Nord atop the agency, the CPSC is projecting a much more aggressive image.

China has not commented on reports of the cadmium problem.

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"If this is really the situation, then I believe the relevant authority will probe into the matter. We attach great importance to the security to our products, in particular our exported products," Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu said Thursday.

Calls to the Gems and Jewelry Trade Association of China were not answered Thursday. An official from the China Toy Association said the group was considering whether to respond to a request for a comment. Both are government-affiliated trade associations.

No one answered numerous telephone calls to the Administration of Quality Supervision Inspection and Quarantine, which enforces product quality standards. Calls to the National Technical Committee of Jewelry Standards were also not answered.

Although it did not carry the force of law, the announcement Wednesday was far bigger than a recall in scope: Instead of going after one particular item, the CPSC targeted an entire industry.

In a written statement, an attorney representing the Fashion Jewelry Trade Association said the organization's members "have worked diligently over the past 18 months to comply with new lead standards and other new safety regulations" that were part of major legislation passed in 2008.

"Safety is our No. 1 concern and our members manufacture safe products," attorney Sheila A. Millar wrote. "We are continuing to investigate and are in contact with CPSC and retail customers."

While the CPSC's focus has been on children's jewelry — defined by law as for those 12 and under — testing reviewed by AP apart from its original investigation showed that some adult jewelry also can contain high levels of cadmium. None of the CPSC statements Wednesday addressed safety concerns about adult jewelry.

Other reaction has been swift and sweeping.

Within hours of the release of AP's original story Sunday, the CPSC said it would investigate the highlighted items, among them charms that contained between 84 and 91 percent cadmium. Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and Claire's, an international accessories and jewelry chain with nearly 3,000 stores in North America and Europe, have since pulled items cited in the report from shelves. Wal-Mart had no comment Wednesday about Tenenbaum's advice; a spokesman for Claire's did not return a call and e-mail seeking comment.

On Wednesday, a senior U.S. senator, Democrat Charles E. Schumer, unveiled legislation to ban cadmium and two other heavy metals from children's jewelry and toys.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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