LOS ANGELES - Federal regulators failed to pursue recalls after they found cadmium-tainted jewelry on store shelves, despite their vow to keep the toxic trinkets out of children's hands, an Associated Press investigation shows.
Officials at the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission also have not warned parents about the contaminated items already in their homes.
More than two years after the AP revealed that some Chinese factories were substituting cadmium for banned lead, the CPSC still hasn't determined the extent of the contamination.
This Wednesday photo shows jewelry containing high levels of the toxic metal cadmium purchased by The Associated Press at small shops in Los Angeles during a 19-month period ending in March 2012. Federal regulators failed to pursue recalls after they found cadmium-tainted jewelry on store shelves, despite their vow to keep such toxic trinkets out of children's hands, an AP investigation shows.
Contaminated jewelry is surely less prevalent in the U.S. than before its widespread presence was first documented. However, rings, bracelets and pendants containing cadmium and marketed for preteen girls were purchased over the last year. The AP and representatives of two consumer groups were able to buy the items in Los Angeles, suburban San Francisco, central Ohio and upstate New York. Despite touting its work as a model of proactive regulation, the agency tasked with protecting Americans from dangerous everyday products often has been reactive - or inactive.
Take a "children's jewelry sweep" the CPSC conducted at stores nationwide. Testing showed that six different items on shelves - including one referred to as a "baby bracelet" - were hazardous by the agency's guidelines. Yet the agency neither pursued recalls nor warned the public about the items, records and interviews show.
In addition, the CPSC allowed Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and Meijer, a smaller Midwest chain, to pull from shelves jewelry that flunked safety testing without telling parents who had previously purchased such items. And it did not follow through on evidence it developed that cadmium jewelry remains on sale in local shops.
Agency staffers have consistently sided with firms that argued their high-cadmium items shouldn't be recalled - not because they were safe in the hands of kids, but because they were deemed not to meet the legal definition of a "children's product." Also, the CPSC trusted retailers and jewelry importers to self-police their inventories for cadmium, but did not check whether they had done so for at least a year.
In response to AP's reporting, the CPSC said it did all it could given limited resources. A spokesman credited the agency's focus on intercepting jewelry before it got onto shelves as the reason that cadmium did not become the widespread scourge that lead was several years ago.
To be sure, the CPSC does have challenges.
Though the agency's resources have been growing, by federal standards the CPSC is a minnow - a $115 million budget supports just 545 full-time employees responsible for regulating thousands of products.
While CPSC Chairman Inez Tenenbaum has claimed credit for reducing the presence of cadmium in children's jewelry, in fact, faster and more forceful efforts have come from elsewhere.
For example, major retailers including Wal-Mart and Target Corp. began requiring safety testing - not the CPSC.
And new laws in six states and national legal settlements - not the CPSC - created strict, binding limits on cadmium in jewelry.
There are no known injuries or deaths due to cadmium in children's jewelry, but contaminated jewelry can poison in two ways: slow and steady through habitual licking and biting, or acutely through swallowing. The CPSC estimates that several thousand kids are treated annually at U.S. emergency rooms for accidentally ingesting jewelry.
Once in the body, cadmium stays for decades. If enough accumulates, it can cripple kidneys and bones - and cause cancer.
To examine the agency's performance on the cadmium issue, the AP conducted three rounds of testing, analyzed hundreds of agency test results and reviewed hundreds of pages of internal documents obtained under the federal Freedom of Information Act. Dozens of regulators, scientists, members of industry, or consumer advocates were interviewed.
National chain stores - which closely manage their public images and invest in product testing - appear to have cleaned up their inventories. Shops that sell discount jewelry are a different story.
The AP made three visits to a dozen small shops in Los Angeles' jewelry district during a 19-month period ending in March. A reporter bought bracelets, necklaces and charm bracelets that salespeople said would make a good gift for a kindergartner.
Twenty of 64 items purchased were at least 5 percent cadmium, and often much higher, according to tests using an Olympus Innov-X X-ray fluorescence gun that estimates what metals are in jewelry. Subsequent lab testing showed that several pendants were hazardous based on CPSC guidelines. One was 85 percent cadmium.