Toxic chemical found in kids' jewelry

Some basic facts about cadmium, a toxic metal that has recently been found in high concentrations in children's jewelry imported from China sold in U.S. stores like Wal-Mart.

What is cadmium?

Cadmium is a naturally occurring, silvery-white, lustrous metal. It is soft enough that it can be cut with a knife. Cadmium is chemically similar to mercury and zinc and is often a by-product of zinc refining.

Where is it found?

Cadmium is a relatively rare element that is uniformly distributed in the Earth's crust. Industrial and municipal waste is the main source of cadmium pollution.

Kid's charms and jewelry are sold at a shop at whole sale market Tuesday Jan. 12, 2010 in Yiwu, China. The toxic metal cadmium is a common ingredient in the earrings, bracelets, charms and other baubles being churned out by local factories and piled high in city's wholesale markets. (AP Photo/Eugene Hoshiko)
Where is it used?

Cadmium is used in the manufacture of nickel-cadmium batteries, and for electroplating other metals or alloys to protect them against corrosion. It is also used in making pigments and to stabilize plastic. In smaller amounts, it is used to make fungicides, control rods and shields for nuclear reactors, television picture tubes, motor oils and curing agents for rubber.

Why is it considered dangerous?

Chronic exposure to cadmium can cause kidney damage, bone mineral density loss and hypertension, according to research compiled in 2009 by the Health Information and Research Division at Statistics Canada.

The report says acute and chronic inhalation of cadmium can cause potentially fatal lung problems. In addition, cadmium has been classified as carcinogenic by the World Health Organization's International Agency for Research on Cancer, with exposure primarily associated with lung cancer.

How much cadmium is too much?

Canada has no guidelines for cadmium exposure among the general population. Statistics Canada research shows cadmium concentration in the blood of Canadians is similar to that of the general population of the United States and Germany.

What are the sources of exposure?

Most exposure comes from eating food grown in soils containing cadmium, from drinking water and cigarette smoking. Workers in plants that use cadmium in the manufacture of goods are at greatest risk of exposure by breathing in dust containing cadmium.

A 2010 Associated Press investigation found that some Chinese manufacturers have been substituting cadmium for lead in cheap charm bracelets and pendants sold throughout the United States and possibly Canada. In the case of cadmium-containing jewelry, children are exposed to persistent low-level doses by regularly sucking or biting the items.

Jeff Weidenhamer, professor of chemistry at Ashland University, holds up a charm that he is testing for cadmium in Ashland, Ohio. (AP Photo/Tony Dejak)
Why is there cadmium in children's jewelry made in China and sold in North America?

A 2010 Associated Press investigation suggests it is because lead is heavily regulated in the United States under the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act of 2008.

As a result, factories are substituting lead with cadmium — a metal that is easy to work with and cheap because prices on the world market have tumbled. While the U.S. consumer product law also contains the first explicit regulation of cadmium, the standards are significantly less strict than for lead and apply only to painted toys, not jewelry.

What is Canada doing about reports of cadmium in children's jewelry?

On July 25, 2011, Health Canada proposed limits on the amount of cadmium allowable in children's jewelry. The guideline suggests a total cadmium concentration of 130 parts per million, or 0.013 per cent of its weight. Last year, Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq appealed to the industry to voluntarily limit the amount of cadmium in children's jewelry. She suggested that regulations — like those that put a cap on the amount of lead that can be used in products — could follow, if guidelines did not work.

Why has the price of cadmium decreased?

The short answer is declining demand for nickel-cadmium batteries, which were widely used in consumer electronics. The advent of other types of rechargeable batteries, which rely on the metallic element lithium, has changed that. Lithium-based batteries weigh less, making them more attractive for use in laptops and cellphones.