In the first settlement of its kind, national jewelry seller Tween Brands Inc. has agreed to effectively eliminate the toxic metal cadmium from the bracelets, necklaces and other items it sells.
The agreement covers jewelry sold to kids, teens and adults in California, but given the size of the state's market, it becomes company policy nationally. The fact that adult jewelry is included represents an expansion of protection; since concerns about high levels of cadmium in jewelry surfaced over the past year, the focus has been on preteen girls.
Last July, Tween recalled from public circulation about 137,000 pieces of jewelry that had been made in China due to unspecified high levels of cadmium. While test results have not been publicly released, some of the five other cadmium jewelry recalls orchestrated last year by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission involved pieces that were more than 90 percent cadmium, according to laboratory testing conducted for The Associated Press.
Under the agreement, starting in August, Tween faces fines if it sells jewelry that is more than 0.03 percent cadmium — a background level that doesn't suggest the cadmium was intentionally added. A state judge still needs to approve the settlement, but that is almost never an issue in these cases.
The case against Tween was brought by the California-based Center for Environmental Health, a group that has long used the state's Proposition 65 to force companies to reduce levels of harmful materials in consumer products. The center said it hoped that the settlement, filed with California's attorney general Friday, would serve as a model for the 39 other retailers or jewelry suppliers it has filed cadmium actions against over the past year.
The center's lawyer is still negotiating with a group of other companies.
"Tween is really being a leader and doing the right thing," said Caroline Cox, the group's research director.
Last year, California passed a law that limited jewelry to 0.03 percent cadmium content, but when it goes into effect next year the levels only apply to jewelry for kids six and under. That law, as well as those three other states, was enacted after an AP investigation which revealed that some Chinese jewelry manufacturers were substituting cadmium for lead, the use of which Congress clamped down on in 2008 following a string of imported product safety scandals.
Cadmium is a soft, whitish metal that if ingested over time can damage the kidneys and bones; a large enough single dose can kill. Cadmium also causes cancer and some research suggests it can stunt the development of young brains.
Tween — which in the settlement denied any wrongdoing but will pay the state, the center, and its lawyers a total of $45,000 — issued a short written statement in response to questions posed by AP: "As a company, we are committed to working to ensure the well-being of our customers, and continue to work to ensure all of our products meet or exceed safety standards."
Meanwhile, the trade group representing the jewelry industry said Monday it is close to finalizing a new, voluntary standard for cadmium limits in jewelry intended for kids 12 and under.
Under that standard, jewelry suppliers would screen jewelry with an X-ray gun that estimates levels of various metals and any piece that registered more than 0.03 percent cadmium would be sent to a lab for more rigorous testing, according to Brent Cleaveland, executive director of the Fashion Jewelry and Accessories Trade Association.
The further testing would gauge how much cadmium escapes from the jewelry — as opposed to simply how much it contains — by simulating what would happen either if a kid licks or swallows the jewelry. Jewelry that failed acceptable exposure standards that the CPSC published last fall would be in violation. The standard still has to be voted on by members of committees at the private-sector organization ASTM, and that process should be wrapped up this summer, Cleaveland said.
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