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Why Do Toys Contain Toxic Cadmium?

The European Union bans cadmium, but the U.S. government does not.

When I went shopping for my 10-year-old brother Robert’s birthday, I didn’t buy anything sharp or that shot projectiles.  Only later did I realize that toys that don’t look dangerous can secretly harbor toxic chemicals.

Cadmium, a metal sometimes used as a cheap alternative to lead to strengthen metal alloys, can be found in some toys.  The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the International Agency Research on Cancer have labeled cadmium and its compounds “known human carcinogens.” The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency calls them “probable human carcinogens.” And they are highly toxic in other ways.

Cadmium shows up frequently in children’s products particularly in children’s jewelry, toys with batteries and paint coatings. A 2010 investigation by the Associated Press tested more than 100 children’s jewelry items from stores in Texas, New York, California and Ohio and found that some of them contained up to 90 percent cadmium. The story prompted Claire’s Accessories to take charm bracelets off the shelf and Wal-Mart to withdraw jewelry branded Miley Cyrus and The Princess and the Frog.  Three years ago, McDonald’s voluntarily recalled 12 million Shrek drinking glasses after the Consumer Product Safety Commission said they contained cadmium.  

The Washington State government’s Department of Ecology publishes a list of 47 products that may contain cadmium.  These include children’s clothes, furniture and art supplies.  The vendors include Wal-Mart, Target and the Horizon Group.

The European Union bans cadmium, but the U.S. government does not.  In 2010, Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY) proposed a bill banning cadmium in children’s jewelry, but Congress did not enact his bill. A few states have enacted cadmium bans.

The chemical is linked to many serious disorders.  The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention ranks cadmium seventh out of 275 hazardous substances in the environment. The federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry cites studies indicating younger animals are more susceptible than adults for loss of bone and bone strength. Before children are even born they can develop problems from cadmium exposure.  A team of Swedish and Bangladeshi researchers found that 1,616 Bangladeshi women exposed to cadmium gave birth to girls with lower birth weights and smaller head circumferences.

Cadmium is linked to learning disabilities in children. A 2011 Harvard University study of 2,000 children concluded that those exposed to cadmium were three times more likely to have learning disabilities. Cadmium is also linked to breast cancer, lung cancer and kidney disease.

A number of health and consumer groups have petitioned the Consumer Product Safety Commission and Environmental Protection Agency to restrict the use of cadmium in children’s products. Yet even after the cadmium in jewelry outbreak, the CPSC did not order mandatory recalls or warn the public of the dangers of cadmium. The most the CPSC has done to address cadmium in children’s products is to recommend an acceptable daily intake level of cadmium. Last year, the EPA issued a final rule for manufacturers of cadmium to submit unpublished health and safety date on cadmium. However, less than a month later, EPA withdrew it due to a massive amount of complaints from industry.

The federal Toxic Substance Control Act of 1976 should reformed and updated to permit stronger restrictions on cadmium. The proposed Chemical Safety Improvement Act, which is backed by the chemical industry, does not mention children and other vulnerable populations and would not give EPA greater authority to act against cadmium.  It would allow companies to bypass state laws and regulations, such as California’s Proposition 65, which requires disclosure of chemicals that cause cancer, birth defects or reproductive harm. Cadmium is on that list.

The lack of a national standard for cadmium in products is downright frightening. We need a bill that protects children, so that kids, like my brother, can enjoy their childhood without worrying about toxic toys.

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