Cadmium in Kids’ Jewelry: 3 Ways to Stay Safe

The discovery of toxic metal in kids’ trinkets shows limited reach of new safety laws.

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Cadmium is an extremely toxic heavy metal. So what the heck is it doing in children's jewelry?

Children's jewelry was supposed to get safer after a federal ban on the use of toxic lead in charms and jewelry went into effect last year. But it's not illegal to make children's products out of cadmium, despite the fact that it's clearly dangerous. And now cadmium has shown up in inexpensive children's jewelry, barely one month after a scare that Zhu Zhu Pets, the "it" toy of the Christmas season, were contaminated with antimony. (The Zhu Zhu Pets turned out to be OK.)

The federal Consumer Product Safety Commission has launched a probe of this new cadmium-tainted bling, and politicians are rushing to extend the federal ban on lead in children's products to include cadmium. But in the meantime, parents are left wondering once again whether common and popular children's products are safe. The tainted pieces in this latest investigation were bought at stores including Walmart, Claire's, and a Dollar N More store. Almost all the charms were imported from China.

Cadmium can cause cancer and kidney problems but has rarely been associated with children's health issues because most poisonings happen in men who work in smelting ore or recycling batteries. "Hopefully, it's not going to become a health issue in pediatrics," says John Rosen, a lead expert at the Children's Hospital at Montefiore Medical Center in New York. But it looks as though he's going to have to add it to the list of potential problems, at least for now. His clinic staff shows parents a photo album of lead-contaminated jewelry, Rosen says. "We tell parents to stay out of dollar stores who sell those types of cheap trinkets."

Purging a child's toy chest, alas, isn't so easy. I'm well aware of the risks posed by children's jewelry made of lead; I write about toy safety and know that a 4-year-old Minneapolis boy died four days after swallowing a lead-tainted charm in 2006. But I naively thought that manufacturers wouldn't have replaced it with something equally toxic. Now I'm looking with suspicion at the charm necklace my daughter got as a gymnastics trophy. It might have to take a permanent vacation. Here's other advice from the pros on keeping cadmium, and lead, out of your child's life:

*Don't let children use or be given cheap metal costume jewelry. "Take the jewelry away," Inez Tenenbaum, the president of the CPSC, said yesterday in a new parent guide on the dangers of heavy metals in children's jewelry.

*If you think your child may have been playing with contaminated toys or jewelry for a month or longer, be "safe rather than sorry," and test your child for lead poisoning, Rosen says. Lead testing is a blood test done in pediatricians' offices and costs $10 to $15.

Home tests kits aren't reliable enough to test for lead in products in your home. If you're concerned, find a certified lead-testing professional through your state's health or environmental protection department. (I found the right site for my state by Googling "Maryland lead testing.")

*Realize that the vast majority of children's heavy-metal exposure comes not from toys but from lead paint in buildings built before 1978. The Environmental Protection Agency explains how to test your home for lead in paint, dust, or soil.