Before 2010, the consumer agency ignored scattered reports of cadmium-contaminated jewelry. Emails obtained under FOIA show an agency working in the days immediately following AP's initial report to turn revelations about past indifference into a success story. But a reconstruction of the ensuing events suggests an agency that started out strong soon began to back off.
Just six months in office in early 2010, Tenenbaum found in cadmium an opportunity to contrast herself with her predecessor, who was cast as weak and ineffective during the 2007-08 Chinese product scares.
"These are a priority for the Chairman, so they are to be given priority," a senior official in CPSC's compliance division emailed testing lab colleagues about samples of bracelet charms on Jan. 14, 2010.
Two weeks later, the agency announced the first-ever cadmium-related recall — 55,000 "The Princess and The Frog" movie-themed pendants sold at Walmarts.
Almost immediately, Tenenbaum was shaping the narrative the agency would tell and retell — that fast action allowed it to "get ahead" of the cadmium problem.
By early 2011, the CPSC had finally done a national "children's jewelry sweep" to gauge what was on store shelves. That February, CPSC chemists reported a troubling analysis of three jewelry samples bought by agency inspectors. Testing showed that hazardous amounts of cadmium would dissolve into the stomach acid of a child who swallowed the jewelry.
Over the next few weeks, three more items failed the test, including the baby bracelet.
While the number of jewelry pieces with hazardous readings was not great — 711 samples were screened — some of the six items had even more alarming cadmium readings than jewelry that had been recalled. One was 27 times higher than the agency's acceptable limit.
Yet the CPSC neither informed consumers nor initiated recall efforts. Instead, the agency asked a distributor where two of the items were found to destroy its inventory. For another item, the inspector only rounded up all samples in the store.
Spokesman Wolfson gave several reasons why the agency took no further action. Two of the items were discontinued in 2005, according to the distributor, which meant "a recall was not warranted" — despite the 2011 purchase. One had packaging that didn't identify the manufacturer or distributor. And in the three other cases, field inspectors had picked up jewelry that they thought was for children but that agency headquarters decided was actually for adults.
"We firmly believe that we took the right action based upon the work we did and the information we gathered," Wolfson said.
Because there were no recalls, the agency can't reveal what the products were or where they were bought.
Aside from the jewelry sweep, in at least two cases the agency let major retailers avoid informing the public that they had pulled jewelry after their testing turned up cadmium.
In May 2010, Wal-Mart announced it had removed "the few products" that failed checks it started doing on children's jewelry; it did not identify the items. The retailing giant had started running a European Union safety test that was similar to the stomach-acid test the CPSC used.
Wal-Mart spokesman Lorenzo Lopez said that despite failing a safety test, the items were not dangerous. He would not share the results.
"We're talking about components within these items that just didn't rise to the level where it posed a safety risk," he said.
Because Wal-Mart unilaterally yanked the products, no public notification was required by CPSC — and Wal-Mart gave none.
The agency never pressed for a recall of items that had already been sold.
A similar scenario occurred at the Midwest retailer Meijer.
The CPSC learned of jewelry with hazardous test readings but, despite a pledge to follow any leads about cadmium jewelry, didn't open an investigation until AP began asking about the items six months later.