LOS ANGELES — The nation's product safety agency issued an unprecedented warning Wednesday to parents: Don't give your children cheap metal jewelry. And if they already have some, toss it because it could contain hazardous levels of heavy metals such as lead and cadmium.
Writing in a blog posting Wednesday evening, the chairman of the Consumer Product Safety Commission noted that children who chew, suck on or swallow a bracelet charm or necklace may be endangering their health.
"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," wrote Inez Tenenbaum, the chairman of the Consumer Product Safety Commission.
In making the recommendation, Tenenbaum cited an investigation by The Associated Press which reported high cadmium levels in kids' jewelry items imported from China including bracelet charms from Walmart and Claire's stores.
Lab tests conducted for the AP on 103 pieces of low-priced children's jewelry found 12 items with cadmium content above 10 percent of the total weight. Several of those shed very high amounts of the metal when analyzed for how much of the toxin a child might be exposed to after swallowing the item.
Like lead, cadmium can hinder brain development in young children, according to recent research. It also causes cancer.
"To prevent young children from possibly being exposed to lead, cadmium or any other hazardous heavy metal, take the jewelry away," Tenenbaum wrote.
While neither Tenenbaum nor an agency spokesman would outright say not to buy cheap children's jewelry, the inference was clear.
For items already in homes, "Parents should 'safely dispose' of the jewelry following state and local environmental laws, and not resell it through online auctions or to a thrift store," CPSC spokesman Scott Wolfson said.
Even during the height of product recalls from China several years ago – when millions of items of jewelry or painted toys with high lead levels were taken off store shelves – the CPSC did not issue such a public warning. Under the administration of President Barack Obama, and with Tenenbaum replacing commissioner Nancy Nord atop the agency, the CPSC is projecting a much more aggressive image.
Although it did not carry the force of law, the announcement Wednesday was far bigger than a recall in scope: Instead of going after one particular item, the CPSC targeted an entire industry.
In a written statement, an attorney representing the Fashion Jewelry Trade Association said the organization's members "have worked diligently over the past 18 months to comply with new lead standards and other new safety regulations" that were part of major legislation passed in 2008.
"Safety is our No. 1 concern and our members manufacture safe products," attorney Sheila A. Millar wrote. "We are continuing to investigate and are in contact with CPSC and retail customers."
Tenenbaum said the agency is "actively investigating the jewelry cited in the recent AP story." She said the inquiry "is squarely focused on ensuring the safety of children."
Asked whether Tenenbaum's posting reflected findings beyond what AP reported, Wolfson said, "We don't have enough information to answer that but we want to be proactive and forward looking."
While the CPSC's focus has been on children's jewelry – defined by law as for those 12 and under – testing reviewed by AP apart from its original investigation showed that some adult jewelry also can contain high levels of cadmium. None of the CPSC statements Wednesday addressed safety concerns about adult jewelry.
Other reaction has been swift and sweeping.
Within hours of the release of AP's original story Sunday, the CPSC said it would investigate the highlighted items, among them charms that contained between 84 and 91 percent cadmium. Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and Claire's, an international accessories and jewelry chain with nearly 3,000 stores in North America and Europe, have since pulled items cited in the report from shelves. Wal-Mart had no comment Wednesday about Tenenbaum's advice; a spokesman for Claire's did not return a call and e-mail seeking comment.
In a recorded speech delivered earlier in the week, Tenenbaum also admonished Asian manufacturers meeting in Hong Kong not to substitute cadmium or other heavy metals for lead, which effectively has been banned from children's jewelry and toys since passage of the 2008 law.
An official with China's product safety agency said it would examine the findings and several members of Congress have urged reforms in U.S. regulations.
Earlier Wednesday, a senior U.S. senator unveiled legislation to ban cadmium and two other heavy metals from children's jewelry and toys.
"It is just despicable that a manufacturer anywhere, in this case in China, would use something that's known to be poisonous to children and put it in children's jewelry to save a few bucks," New York Democrat Charles E. Schumer told reporters outside a dollar store in Rochester, N.Y., that sold charm bracelets with high cadmium content.
Schumer plans to introduce the "Safe Kids' Jewelry Act" when Congress resumes session next week.
In issuing her warning, Tenenbaum said the agency is "working to take decisive action," using the Federal Hazardous Substances Act, "a law aimed at keeping kids safe from toxic chemicals and metals."
To date, the CPSC has never pursued an enforcement action against a product based on that authority.
Associated Press writers Ben Dobbin in Rochester, N.Y., and Charles Hutzler in Beijing contributed to this report.
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