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About Cadmium

Posted by SAFER States on Jul 28, 2010

last updated: December 20, 2011

Cadmium is an extremely toxic metal that is used in batteries, industrial paints, metal coatings and as a stabilizer for plastics. It is mainly produced as a byproduct of smelting and refining of zinc concentrates.

Cadmium exposure comes from these products, from tobacco smoke, and from the burning of fossil fuels and municipal waste. It contaminates groundwater and builds up in food (fish, meat and plants). The US Department of Labor recognizes cadmium as a hazard to workers and cites severe health effects including cancer, pulmonary emphysema, and bone disease from chronic exposure to cadmium.

High levels of cadmium are found in inexpensive children's toys, jewelry and painted products. Since children often put these products in their mouth, and their systems are particularly vulnerable to toxic chemical exposure, this is of grave concern to health advocates.

Cadmium bans are in place in:

California. As of January 1, 2012, cadmium in adult or children's jewelry in California will be disallowed in concentrations higher than 300 parts per million (ppm) or .03% by weight.

Connecticut. Beginning in 2014, jewelry intended for children under 12 cannot have cadmium of more than .0075% (75ppm) by weight.

Illinois. The Cadmium-Safe Kids Act restricted cadmium in children's jewelry to .0075% (75 ppm) by weight starting July 1, 2011.

Maryland. Beginning in 2012, jewelry intended for children under 13 cannot have cadmium more than .0075% (75 ppm) by weight.

Minnesota. Minnesota has a ban against cadmium in paints that has been in place since 1998. It disallows the presence of 100 parts per million of lead, cadmium, mercury or hexavalent chromium into any pigment, paint, dye, ink or fungicides. In 2010, Minnesota voted into law a bill that would limit cadmium from children's jewelry effective 2011.

Washington. Beginning in 2009, children’s products sold or dictributed cannot have more than .004% (40ppm) cadmium by weight.

The European Union. In May of 2011, the EU set into place a ban on the use of cadmium in plastics, jewelry, brazing and soldering sticks as of December 2011.

If not lead, cadmium: Playing toxic metal Whack-A-Mole

Cadmium is a metal that has been around commercially since the end of the 19th century, but it is of increasing concern to parents. Prior to cadmium, parents were concerned about lead in toys, which was disallowed from consumer products for children in 2009. This law came about after lead was connected with developmental issues, delayed growth and hearing loss in children. Lead is a persistent, bioaccumulative toxin (PBT) which means that it persists in the environment for a long period of time, and builds up in our systems.

So lead was outlawed, but cadmium—which has just as many health issues in household products, inexpensive jewelry and toys—became of increasing concern. This frustrated parents and consumers, as the piece-meal method of banning chemicals in the United States means that harmful chemicals still remain in these items. If chemicals were vetted before being put into children's toys (and ultimately their mouths), then we wouldn't be playing whack-a-mole with the chemicals in our homes.

"Congress passed a major consumer product safety overhaul in 2008, following a series of recalls of Chinese-made goods. That law barred the use of lead in products for children under 12; in response, some Chinese jewelry manufacturers have turned to cadmium ... Cadmium is attractive to Chinese manufacturers because it is cheap and easy to work with. But, like lead, it can hinder brain development in the very young, recent research shows."

- Associated Press, January 2010.

Health Concerns

"There's nothing positive that you can say about this metal. It's a poison."

- Bruce A Fowler, toxicologist, as told to the NY Daily News.

Male Reproductive System. Cadmium is an endocrine disruptor which means that it can affect male virility, cause genital deformities, and contribute to reproductive problems in men.

Kidneys. Adults exposed to cadmium as children may be more susceptible to renal toxicity than people only exposed as adults.

Bones. Bones are a sensitive target of cadmium toxicity, and bone disease may occur. Studies suggest that the elderly and children may be especially to bone damage from cadmium exposure. People, especially children, are more vulnerable if their diet is low in calcium and iron. Cadmium effects calcium metabolism and can result in bone loss. This condition has been referred to as "Itai-Itai" disease, which means "Ouch-Ouch" in Japanese and reflects the bone pain associated with cadmium effects on calcium.

Immune system suppression. When cadmium enters the body through the mouth, it suppresses immuno-response of rats.

Cancer. The EPA considers cadmium to be a probable human carcinogen.

"I would highly encourage all of you to ensure that toy manufacturers and children's product manufacturers in your country are not substituting cadmium, antimony, barium, in place of lead ... All of us should be committed to keeping hazardous or toxic levels of heavy metals out of ... toys and children's products."

- Inez Tenenbaum, chairman of the Consumer Product Safety Commission to an audience of manufacturers, exporters and regulators.

Products that contain Cadmium

Children's metal jewelry. As you can see from the recalls (below) for children's jewelry, many items have recently been found to have toxic levels of cadmium. Of particular concern is the fact that children put jewelry in their mouths and the cadmium enters their systems. From the chairman of the Consumer Products Safety Commission (CPSC): "I have a message for parents, grandparents and caregivers: Do not allow young children to be given or to play with cheap metal jewelry, especially when they are unsupervised."

Tobacco smoke. Tobacco plants concentrate cadmium in the leaves and smokers absorb cadmium through the lungs from tobacco smoke. Cadmium levels in the blood and breast milk of smokers is much higher than in non-smokers.

Artificial phosphate fertilizers. Crop fertilizers may contain cadmium which is then taken up by vegetables and fruits grown on that land. Food is the principal means of cadmium exposure for non-smokers.

Rechargeable batteries. Many rechargeable batteries are primarily cadmium, which is why they need to be disposed of recycled correctly and not thrown away or burned.

Electronics such as laptop computers and cell phones. There are toxic levels of cadmium in such electronics, which means that they should be disposed of properly. Dumping electronics and batteries into the landfills means that the cadmium leaches into groundwater and ends up in our food.

Food supply - animals. Shellfish, an important source of food for humans and other animals, concentrate cadmium. Like humans, shellfish are adversely affected by cadmium exposure.

Because cadmium is a cumulative toxin and has a very long half-time in the body, exposures to children in even low amounts may have long-term adverse consequences.

- Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, 2008.

Major Studies & News Stories

September 2011. The Center for Environmental Health (CEH) came to a legal agreement with twenty-six major jewelry retailers and suppliers—including Saks Incorporated, Target, The Gap (including Old Navy and Banana Republic) and Forever 21—to set strict limits on cadmium in jewelry by December 31, 2011.

July 2010. Associated Press reports that another 137,000 cadmium-laden pieces of jewelry are recalled from two stores popular with teenage girls.

June 2010. 66,200 "happy bracelets" and 2,200 rings that were made by company SmileMakers and handed out in medical offices are recalled due to high levels of cadmium.

May 2010. Wal-Mart pulls an entire line of Miley Cyrus-branded necklaces and bracelets due to high levels of cadmium, saying "We are removing all of the jewelry from sale while we investigate its compliance with our children's jewelry standard."

May 2010. In cooperation with federal regulators, Claire's Boutiques recalls 19,000 "Best Friends" charm bracelets that are targeted at children and teens.

June 2010. Cadmium is found in "Shrek" decorated glasses being sold at McDonald's. McDonald's recalls 12 million glasses in cooperation with federal regulators.

March 2010. US regulators ask parents to throw away "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" charms that may have been purchased from dollar-stores between 2006 and 2009, as they have high levels of cadmium. The January Associated Press reports found 12 children's items with cadmium content above 10$ of the total weight. The recalled Rudolph charms were 91% cadmium.

January 2010. Associated Press reports that high levels of cadmium are found in children's costume jewelry from China. As a result, federal regulators recall some children's jewelry products, and Wal-Mart pulls three items from its shelves. This recall marks the first time any consumer product is recalled in the US due to cadmium.

Additional Resources

Our latest stories on cadmium.
Guide for Parents: The Dangers of Heavy Metals in Children's Products. US Consumer Product Safety Commission.
Consumer Reports
Healthy Child, Healthy World.
Toxicological profile for cadmium, Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, 2008.
Cadmium fact sheet, USGS (PDF)