Amid growing worry over the presence of toxic cadmium in kids' jewelry, a new study further supports the fear that kids can be exposed to more than 100 times the recommended limit of this noxious metal when they mouth or accidentally swallow common, inexpensive jewelry items.
Following strict regulation on lead content in children's items, many manufacturers, especially in China, have turned to cadmium as a cheap, shiny, and easy to work with metal for use in cheap jewelry, which is often marketed to kids.
Although lead is a potentially harmful metal at high exposure, cadmium is a much more noxious metal even at lower doses, and has been linked to kidney, bone and liver disease. It is also a known carcinogen.
Ironically, in an attempt to eradicate one toxin from our children's lives, we've traded up in toxicity, said Dr. Charles McKay, a medical toxicologist at Hartford Hospital-University of Connecticut Health Center.
What's more, we've traded a regulated substance, lead, for one that is not yet regulated in children's toys or in jewelry, he added.
The absence of regulations has opened the doors for some jewelry items to expose young kids to extremely high levels of this toxin when they suck on the jewelry or accidently ingest it. Of the 92 pieces of cadmium-containing jewelry tested in the study, which was published today in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives, two would expose children to 100 times the recommended limit on cadmium had they been swallowed.
And when the jewelry becomes scratched or damaged, as is often the case among anything a child wears or plays with regularly, the risk for exposure is even higher. For example, six damaged sandal charms tested in the study yielded 30 times as much cadmium as undamaged charms.
Cadmium poses an especial risk, said lead author Jeff Weidenhamer, a professor of chemistry at Ashland University, because it's impossible for parents to tell which items they buy contain the metal. Many don't, he said, and among those that do, often the levels are ostensibly safe but can still be quite toxic.
Cadmium is also of major concern because it accumulates in the body over the course of a lifetime, Weidenhamer said. "And the digestive systems of kids are more efficient at absorbing cadmium, so exposure to kids who swallow these items is of increased concern."
The fear over cadmium took off last year after an Associated Press story reported disturbingly high levels of cadmium in some kids' jewelry. Weidenhamer performed the tests used for the AP story, and today's study looked into a wider variety of possibly toxic jewelry marketed to children.
Though cadmium is not a regulated substance in toys and jewelry, the Consumer Product Safety Commission has released guidelines on safe levels of the metal, but there is no way to enforce these recommendations at this time. The CPSC has performed five recalls of jewelry because of the potential toxicity of cadmium.
Instead of regulating cadmium at an industry level, the way lead is regulated in kids' toys, another option is to keep cadmium out of kids' products at the state level, Weidenhamer said. Connecticut and California, among other states, have made the move to ban cadmium from certain children items, he said.
Without an industry standard or a ban on cadmium, "it's difficult to protect kids because you can't look at an item and know if there's cadmium or not," Weidenhamer said.
What's more, the research on cadmium toxicity is still growing, said Bruce Fowler, cadmium specialist and toxicologist from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and researchers have increasingly been lowering the threshold at which this metal can be harmful.
"It's a moving targe,t because the more sensitive tests we develop, the more we realize that even lower levels are toxic," he said.
Short of boycotting cheap jewelry or products from China, it may seem like an impossible task for parents to protect their children from the possibility of cadmium exposure, but doctors do have tips for minimizing the risk.
"I like to tell people to buy books, avoid cheap costume jewelry and gumball machine jewelry, and try to keep toys and other products out of their children's mouths. There are so many kids toys manufactured in other countries so it is hard to say don't buy those, but I would be careful buying those," said Dr. Adam Spanier, at the department of Pediatrics at Hershey Medical Center.
Because cadmium accumulates in the body over time, it's important to reduce exposure on multiple levels. For instance, cigarette smoke is a major source of cadmium exposure, so keeping kids away from secondhand smoke is important, Spanier said. In the household, cadmium is found in some batteries, so these should be kept out of the reach of children as well, according to CDC recommendations on the metal.
Cadmium poisoning often goes undiagnosed because in the short term it manifests as gastrointestinal problems, vomiting and diarrhea, which are general enough to be mistaken for the flu or a number of other problems, says Spanier.
Testing for cadmium poisoning should be sought on suspected exposure, before a child shows symptoms. For more information, parents can contact their local poison control, he adds.