Like many people, we were shocked to learn this week that children's jewelry sold at Wal-Mart and other national retailers were found to contain extremely high concentrations of cadmium, a heavy metal which is even more toxic than lead.
When the CPSIA banned lead content in children's jewelry in August 2008, most manufacturers switched to zinc. A few Chinese manufacturers, however, chose cadmium instead, which was apparently cheaper. Although cadmium is regulated in toys by the CPSIA, these standards do not apply to jewelry.
So, while Wal-Mart pulls these poisonous pendants from their shelves, what lesson can we learn from this?
The problem is, even the best law cannot stop the bad actors whose only motives are profits. In this, Wal-Mart is directly culpable, with its price rollbacks forcing manufacturers of all kinds to make decision like, "cadmium is cheaper than zinc and isn't illegal, so let's use cadmium." It's called the Wal-Mart Effect, a global race to the bottom that involves consumer products of all kinds.
In addition to cadmium-laced jewelry, we have seen at least two other examples of substances not regulated in the US which were nonetheless extremely hazardous: powdered asbestos used in a detective kit and a chemical substitution in the "Aquadots" toy that produced the toxin gamma-hydroxybutyric acid. Outside of toys, there's the example of melamine in dog food baby formula.
What could be next? Uranium in toy cars? Arsenic in baby bibs? What set of regulations could possibly prevent the next irresponsible outsourced manufacturer from switching to a cheap toxin that isn't technically illegal?
Sure, we can make every responsible children's product manufacturer pay to test their products for cadmium, which will work just fine until another unsuspected heavy metal finds it's way into Wal-Mart or a chain of dollar stores. No amount of regulation can protect us from products which are simply too cheap to be safe.
What we need is a system that rewards responsible manufacturers who maintain strict control over their entire production process. Small batch manufacturers are our particular concern, but many large companies, even many who manufacture in China, maintain strict control of their supply chains. In the media, in regulations, and in our buying, we need to nurture and protect responsible manufacturers. For every jewelry maker who used cadmium, there are nine others who chose zinc.
The CPSC has been burdened for over a year with implementing the extremely complex CPSIA. This may or may not be why they seem to have missed a growing use of cadmium in the wake of the CPSIA's lead ban, but we have long argued that this is exactly the kind of threat the agency currently faces, which we've called the darker(er) side of the CPSIA. Because the CPSIA forces the agency to spend most of it's time regulating responsible manufacturers' adherence to the proceedural requirements of the CPSIA, it has far less energy left to identify and control the irresponsible manufacturers.
And, because the CPSIA doesn't allow the CPSC to require more stringent controls for higher risk products, it must apply the same rules to all, regardless of country of origin or whether production is outsourced.
Meanwhile, those of us who make things by hand, who control and take direct responsibility for our products, are forced to abandon our work because of the CPSIA's onerous testing requirements. And, somewhere in China, a subcontractor of an outsourced subcontractor just discovered an even cheaper way to make a throwaway toy.
Image: an ingot of cadmium