LOS ANGELES - Hammered by more than a year of recalls and legal setbacks, the U.S. jewelry industry has agreed to voluntarily limit the toxic metal cadmium in children's trinkets -- and, in the process, has helped write what amounts to new federal regulations of its products.
The rules join a patchwork of mandatory limits that already deter use of the heavy metal, which over time can cause cancer and other diseases, though there have been no documented deaths or serious injuries. While the voluntary standards don't trump stricter limits from states and legal settlements, they do create a consensus national standard that jewelry manufacturers and importers endorse.
Because the limits are voluntary, there is no automatic penalty for jewelry sold with cadmium levels exceeding them. The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission will, however, use the limits in deciding whether to pursue product recalls.
The agency has argued that voluntary limits were the appropriate -- and fastest -- way to create a common understanding of what would constitute a problem piece of jewelry. The agency said that unless it finds widespread failure to comply, it will not seek mandatory rules.
Several states have passed laws to deal with cadmium over the past year. Like the states, the private sector is helping fill a void left by the lack of clear federal limits.
In response to an Associated Press investigation, the CPSC last year helped recall about 300,000 pieces of high-cadmium necklaces, bracelet and rings. The AP reported that some jewelry was more than 90 percent cadmium and would release alarmingly high levels of the metal into stomach acid if swallowed.
Problem jewelry, typically made in China, was available across the marketplace, from Walmarts to chain stores specializing in jewelry to dollar-type shops.
Five recalls were done before the agency decided how to handle the emerging problem. By last fall, staff scientists had developed guidelines for how to identify a hazardous piece of jewelry based on lab testing that mimicked how much cadmium would enter a child's body from jewelry that was licked or swallowed. In that process, the agency more than tripled its estimate of how much cadmium a child could safely ingest.
Jewelry test results above those levels may -- or may not -- trigger the agency to ask businesses to yank an item from their shelves.
It wasn't just fuzzy federal guidelines that drove the jewelry industry to seek predictable rules. Importers and manufacturers had to comply with new testing demands from retailers, the varying limits imposed by states such as California and Illinois -- and still another limit that was established when major retailers recently settled a lawsuit with environmentalists.
A compromise approach was overwhelmingly endorsed by a panel led by a jewelry industry veteran and including consumer advocates and representatives of testing labs.
This children's jewelry subcommittee convened under the banner of the independent group ASTM International, a respected organization that sets voluntary standards for a range of goods. In results announced last week, the full ASTM committee on consumer products approved the standard, which also addresses other potential jewelry hazards such as lead and magnets.
Under the ASTM approach, children's jewelry -- defined as items "primarily intended" for kids 12 and under -- would first be lab tested to see whether it contains more than 0.03 percent cadmium.
Items that failed the "total content" test could be scrapped or sent for further analysis. For smaller pieces, a second test gauges how much cadmium would dissolve into the stomach a day after the jewelry was swallowed; for larger pieces, an additional test measures how much cadmium escapes under conditions that simulate licking.
The CPSC supports this approach -- indeed, the ASTM standard borrows heavily from the agency's safety levels and test methods.
Industry had wanted the stomach acid test to last just two hours, but eventually agreed to the 24 hours that CPSC staff advocated. On the other side, the CPSC rejected the approach preferred by environmentalists and consumer advocates, who favor a much more conservative standard based solely on how much cadmium jewelry contains, not how much it might release.
A total content approach is how the CPSC currently regulates lead, the metal that some jewelry makers abandoned in favor of cadmium after Congress passed strict lead limits in 2008.
The new voluntary standard "limits potential exposure to cadmium in children's jewelry in a manner that assures safety without resulting in bans on safe products," according to Brent Cleaveland, head of the ASTM subcommittee that wrote the rules and executive director of the Fashion Jewelry and Accessories Trade Association. He described it as "way more conservative than necessary."
Not to Caroline Cox, research director at the Center for Environmental Health and the lone dissenting voter against the voluntary standard. Her Oakland-based organization found cadmium in jewelry at dozens of stores, and earlier this month settled legal cases against chains including Target Corp. and Gap Inc., which agreed they wouldn't sell jewelry with more than 0.03 percent cadmium, even if very little leached out.
Cox argued during the ASTM process that pieces of new jewelry that might fare fine in an initial stomach acid test would fare much worse if swallowed following months of wear and tear. Testing has shown that as electroplating wears down, or if a piece of jewelry's surface is punctured, cadmium inside can leach out at much greater levels.
If the standard were based solely on a limit of 0.03 percent cadmium, "We don't want to have to worry about all that," Cox said. "Let's just set a total content standard from the beginning that takes care of the problem."
The head of the CPSC sounded an optimistic note.
"ASTM's approval of a new cadmium standard for children's jewelry is a positive step forward," CPSC Chairman Inez Tenebaum said in a written statement. "It is very important for ASTM to also complete their work and publish the new cadmium standard for toys as soon as possible."
The standard may take effect by early November.
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)