Toxic metals in consumer products
Cadmium is an extremely toxic heavy metal. So what is it, and the equally dangerous lead, doing in consumer products like drinking glasses and kids' jewellery
Cadmium is an extremely toxic heavy metal. So what is it doing in drinking glasses, protein drinks, and kids’ jewellery? And how do we get it out?
This spring McDonald’s recalled cadmium-tainted drinking glasses decorated with characters from the Shrek movies. The reason for the recall was that children could ingest the heavy metal in the pigment of the painted designs by mouthing them or by putting their hands in their mouths.
Cadmium is a component of the Earth’s crust that has no biological function in our bodies. We absorb it easily, however, and take decades to eliminate it. Eating low levels over a long period of time can lead to cancer, severe kidney damage, and fragile bones.
Health Canada advised that the cadmium in the drinking glasses was at a safe level, but a spokesperson for the US Consumer Product Safety Commission told media it was “slightly over the protective level” being developed by the agency.
One poison among many
Apart from the confusion between the two agencies’ statements, both assume consumers will be exposed to only one source of the toxic metal.
But recently there have been three other high-profile recalls concerning high levels of cadmium in inexpensive children’s jewellery made in China, a similar result found in adult jewellery, and a Consumer Reports study of unsafe levels in a popular brand of protein drinks if consumed three times per day.
Toxic levels of cadmium are also found in cigarettes and some shellfish.
These multiple sources should raise the spectre of multiple exposures.
There’s also the problem of multiple toxins. “Adults and children are routinely exposed to a witches’ brew of toxic ingredients and heavy metals,” says David R. Boyd, author of Dodging the Toxic Bullet: How to Protect Yourself from Everyday Environmental Health Hazards (Greystone Books, 2010).
Boyd cites a 2005 study by the Environmental Working Group that found hundreds of toxic substances and metals in the umbilical cord blood of newborn babies. “Some of these are known carcinogens, neurotoxins, and developmental toxins,” Boyd says. “The combined health effects are only beginning to be studied.”
The cadmium-lead connection
Health Canada found high levels of both cadmium and lead in recent testing of inexpensive children’s jewellery. Both cadmium and lead were also found in the popular protein drinks tested by Consumer Reports.
Like cadmium, lead is toxic. Even at low levels, lead can damage a child’s learning ability. It easily crosses the placenta of a pregnant woman and damages the developing fetus. To safeguard yourself and your children from lead, see the sidebar (page 95).
Who’s protecting us?
Lead and cadmium content is regulated by the Hazardous Products Act in Canada, but currently only for a few products. Paint and other surface coatings for kids’ toys and play equipment are covered.
There are no regulations limiting the amount of cadmium in children’s jewellery.
What about China’s responsibility for exporting many of these tainted products?
According to Paul Midler, author of Poorly Made in China: An Insider’s Account of the Tactics Behind China’s Production Game (Wiley, 2009), China has continued to use toxic metals even after massive recalls of toys and other products.
“In 2007 we had a crisis with lead paints in Mattel toys made in China,” Midler says. “Now, three summers later, we have a new crisis in cadmium.”A lack of standards and oversight in the Chinese system, he says, make it unlikely the dangerous use of both metals will cease.
Without sufficient regulatory mechanisms here and in exporting countries, the onus falls on us, the consumer, to inform ourselves and take action.
To avoid high levels of lead and cadmium, don’t purchase jewellery that feels heavy for its size. Throw out the item if you suspect it contains cadmium, and take your child to the doctor for tests if you fear they’ve mouthed it. At any time, ask retailers for proof that a product does not contain toxic ingredients.
These online resources will help you stay informed:
Stronger laws are also needed. A good model to advocate for is the European Union’s REACH legislation, which focuses on risk prevention.
REACH requires all manufacturers to register product ingredients in a central database and to substitute safe alternatives for any dangerous level of heavy metal or chemical.
With preventive laws like this we might be able to protect ourselves from multiple toxins, instead of playing catch-up one at a time and after the fact.
|Getting the lead out of consumer products|
When it comes to toxicity, one product alone may not cause poisoning; there are many sources of lead, which tends to accumulate and persist in the body for years. Although there are home lead-testing kits on the market, Health Canada advises that these are unreliable.
—Sources: Health Canada, Centre for Environmental Health, Environment Canada, SafeCosmetics.org, Consumer Product Safety Commission.