The warnings from the nation's chief product safety officer were unprecedented: Don't give your child any of that cheap metal jewelry you've been hearing about. And don't let your young ones play with it either — those shiny $3.99 bracelets and charms could contain toxic cadmium or lead, almost definitely imported from China.
The initial advice Wednesday from U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission chairman Inez Tenenbaum contained plenty of don'ts — but didn't say what to do with the jewelry if you have it. When pressed, Tenenbaum's spokesman Scott Wolfson explained parents should grab the trinkets and toss them. Just be sure to "safely dispose" of the merchandise under applicable state and federal environmental law.
It was another escalation in the serious health concern that began Sunday, when The Associated Press published its first investigative report on tests that showed the presence of high levels of cadmium in imported children's jewelry.
So what are America's Moms and Dads to do? While neither Tenenbaum nor Wolfson would outright say not to buy cheap children's jewelry, that inference was clear, too.
A tough conversation around the kitchen table: don't buy any new stuff, don't give out any new stuff, don't play with the old stuff. In fact, get rid of the old stuff, but in a manner that doesn't risk putting toxins from the jewelry into the environment.
And make sure you don't go out and resell the jewelry through online auctions or to a thrift store, said Wolfson.
So far, there's been no word of any official recalls. When asked if the recommendations were bigger than a recall, Wolfson replied, "Yes."
Nowhere in all of the advice was the word "refund."
So instead of focusing in on specific items, as a recall would do, the CPSC officials are taking on 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."
Health concerns are clearly driving the action. Writing in a blog posting Wednesday evening, Tenenbaum noted that children who bite, chew, suck on or swallow a bracelet charm or necklace may be endangering their health.
Like lead, cadmium can hinder brain development in young children, according to recent research. It also causes cancer.
Those are very legitimate concerns because in making the recommendation, Tenenbaum took note of the lab results cited in the AP investigation, which included analysis of pieces purchased at stores belonging to Wal-Mart, the world's biggest retailer, and Claire's, a jewelry and accessories outfit that has 3,000 stores in North America and Europe.
No sales numbers have been made available by either company, and Ashland University chemistry professor Jeff Weidenhamer, who conducted the testing for AP, only looked at 103 pieces of low-priced children's jewelry — finding 12 items with cadmium content above 10 percent of the total weight.
In other tests part of the AP investigation, 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.
Clearly, the CPSC is worried beyond those limited test results.
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.
In issuing her warning, Tenenbaum said the agency is "working to take decisive action," using the Federal Hazardous Substances Act, "a law aimed at keeping kids safe from toxic chemicals and metals." To date, though, the CPSC has never pursued an enforcement action against a product based on that authority.
Tenenbaum said the agency is "actively investigating the jewelry cited in the recent AP story" and that the inquiry "is squarely focused on ensuring the safety of children."
In a recorded speech delivered earlier in the week, Tenenbaum admonished Asian manufacturers meeting in Hong Kong not to substitute cadmium or other heavy metals for lead, which effectively has been banned from children's jewelry and toys since passage of the 2008 law.
Asked whether Tenenbaum's posting reflected findings beyond what AP reported, Wolfson said, "We don't have enough information to answer that but we want to be proactive and forward looking."
And 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 possible safety concerns about adult jewelry.
Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and Claire's have since pulled the kids' jewelry items mentioned in the AP report, but either had a new comment about the latest CPSC pronouncements.
The AP National Investigative Team can be reached at investigate(at)ap.org
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