The AP made three visits to a dozen small shops in Los Angeles' jewelry district during a 19-month period ending in March. A reporter bought bracelets, necklaces and charm bracelets that salespeople said would make a good gift for a kindergartner.
Twenty of 64 items purchased were at least 5 percent cadmium, and often much higher, according to tests using an Olympus Innov-X X-ray fluorescence gun that estimates what metals are in jewelry. Subsequent lab testing showed that several pendants were hazardous based on CPSC guidelines. One was 85 percent cadmium.
Additional proof that cadmium jewelry was being sold comes from testing by two advocacy groups, the California-based Center for Environmental Health and Michigan-based Ecology Center. Lab results indicated that trinkets bought at Halloween costume stores last fall in the San Francisco Bay area and discounters in New York and Ohio over the winter were between 20 and 30 percent cadmium.
While the items would appeal to kids, they weren't recalled, apparently because the CPSC did not consider them children's products. If jewelry isn't "primarily intended" for kids 12 and under, it's an adult product — and adult products have no cadmium restrictions.
Results of the testing by AP and the advocacy groups reinforce ongoing reporting on the larger question — whether the CPSC has kept its word on taking the strongest steps possible to clean up store shelves and children's jewelry boxes.
In fact, the CPSC has been aware that cadmium jewelry was being sold in some discount shops since at least September 2010. That's when the agency's lab reported hazardous readings from a children's pendant bought at a small shop in New York City. As with jewelry AP bought in Los Angeles, there were no manufacturer markings on the packaging — and that made it difficult to track the pendant to its source.
The agency's investigator bought all the samples at the shop, but didn't look to see whether the pendant was sold elsewhere, CPSC spokesman Scott Wolfson said.
"We've got to make some tough decisions with our investigators in terms of when they stay on the trail," Wolfson said. "There needs to be a rationale for it."
In January 2010, Tenenbaum mobilized her agency in reaction to AP's initial investigation. She told parents to toss cheap metal trinkets and promised to investigate all high-cadmium jewelry the agency learned about.
While five jewelry recalls followed, none began at the agency's initiative. The first three covered products AP highlighted; the last two came after companies approached the CPSC. All the recalls were voluntary.
Then the recalls stopped, though not because the CPSC thought cadmium was gone from the marketplace.
Instead of clearing contaminated products from store shelves, the agency focused on a policy of restricting future flow. At first, that meant warning Asian manufacturers to stop substituting cadmium for lead. Later, the agency started scattered cargo checks at U.S. ports and pressed a private-sector group led by the jewelry industry to adopt voluntary cadmium limits.
It took nearly two years for those standards to be enacted. And while several cadmium jewelry shipments were intercepted, with just 19 inspectors at 15 ports, the agency touches a minuscule fraction of the billions of consumer goods that enter the U.S. each year.
At a product safety conference in March, Tenenbaum claimed victory: "The proactive steps we have taken in China, at the ports, and in the standards environment have stopped cadmium from being the next lead."
But it wasn't until early 2011, a full year after AP's original report, that the agency had began seriously checking children's jewelry on store shelves. Even then, the scale of sampling was not great enough to draw broad conclusions.
Tenenbaum said in an interview that inspectors didn't check store shelves earlier because agency scientists had not decided what cadmium levels would qualify a piece of jewelry as hazardous. And they haven't checked more since 2011 due to other priorities, particularly items that children have died using, such as faulty cribs and ATVs.