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Why Do Children's Toys Contain Toxic Cadmium?

Health + Wellness

Environmental Working Group

By Emily Clarke

When I went shopping for my 10-year-old brother Robert’s birthday, I didn’t buy anything sharp or that shot projectiles. Only later did I realize that toys that don’t look dangerous can secretly harbor toxic chemicals.

Cadmium, a metal sometimes used as a cheap alternative to lead to strengthen metal alloys, can be found in some toys. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the International Agency Research on Cancer have labeled cadmium and its compounds “known human carcinogens.” The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) calls them “probable human carcinogens.” And they are highly toxic in other ways.

Cadmium shows up frequently in children’s products particularly in children’s jewelry, toys with batteries and paint coatings. A 2010 investigation by the Associated Press tested more than 100 children’s jewelry items from stores in Texas, New York, California and Ohio and found that some of them contained up to 90 percent cadmium. The story prompted Claire’s Accessories to take charm bracelets off the shelf and Wal-Mart to withdraw jewelry branded Miley Cyrus and The Princess and the Frog. Three years ago, McDonald’s voluntarily recalled 12 million Shrek drinking glasses after the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) said they contained cadmium.

In 2011, Congress adopted a standard limiting the amount of cadmium that can be used in toys. A voluntary standard has been established for the amount of cadmium that can be used in children’s jewelry. It is not legally binding on manufacturers. According to the CPSC, the standards are “adequate to address the risk of cadmium exposure” from such products.

Despite these standards and efforts to remove cadmium from children’s products, reports indicate that some products still contain cadmium at levels considered hazardous. For example, last year, the CPSC tested children’s jewelry from several stores and found several products with high levels of cadmium. No recalls or public warnings were issued as a result of these findings.

Given the health risks associated with cadmium, the U.S. government should follow the European Union’s lead and ban cadmium from a number of consumer products.

The Washington State government’s Department of Ecology publishes a list of 47 products that may contain cadmium. These include children’s clothes, furniture and art supplies. The vendors include Wal-Mart, Target and the Horizon Group.

The European Union bans cadmium, but the U.S. government does not. In 2010, Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY) proposed a bill banning cadmium in children’s jewelry, but Congress did not enact his bill. A few states have enacted cadmium bans.

The chemical is linked to many serious disorders. The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention ranks cadmium seventh out of 275 hazardous substances in the environment. The federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry cites studies indicating younger animals are more susceptible than adults for loss of bone and bone strength. Before children are even born they can develop problems from cadmium exposure. A team of Swedish and Bangladeshi researchers found that 1,616 Bangladeshi women exposed to cadmium gave birth to girls with lower birth weights and smaller head circumferences.

Cadmium is linked to learning disabilities in children. A 2011 Harvard University study of 2,000 children concluded that those exposed to cadmium were three times more likely to have learning disabilities. Cadmium is also linked to breast cancer, lung cancer and kidney disease.

A number of health and consumer groups have petitioned the CPSC and EPA to restrict the use of cadmium in children’s products. Yet even after the cadmium in jewelry outbreak, the CPSC did not order mandatory recalls or warn the public of the dangers of cadmium. The most the CPSC has done to address cadmium in children’s products is to recommend an acceptable daily intake level of cadmium. Last year, the EPA issued a final rule for manufacturers of cadmium to submit unpublished health and safety date on cadmium. However, less than a month later, EPA withdrew it due to a massive amount of complaints from industry.

The federal Toxic Substance Control Act of 1976 should reformed and updated to permit stronger restrictions on cadmium. The proposed Chemical Safety Improvement Act, which is backed by the chemical industry, does not mention children and other vulnerable populations and would not give EPA greater authority to act against cadmium. It would allow companies to bypass state laws and regulations, such as California’s Proposition 65, which requires disclosure of chemicals that cause cancer, birth defects or reproductive harm. Cadmium is on that list.

The lack of a national standard for cadmium in products is downright frightening. We need a bill that protects children, so that kids, like my brother, can enjoy their childhood without worrying about toxic toys.

Visit EcoWatch’s HEALTH pages for more related news on this topic.

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Jessica Kourkounis / Stringer

The rallying cry to build it again and to build it better than before is inspiring after a natural disaster, but it may not be the best course of action, according to new research published in the journal Science.

"Faced with global warming, rising sea levels, and the climate-related extremes they intensify, the question is no longer whether some communities will retreat—moving people and assets out of harm's way—but why, where, when, and how they will retreat," the study begins.

The researchers suggest that it is time to rethink retreat, which is often seen as a last resort and a sign of weakness. Instead, it should be seen as the smart option and an opportunity to build new communities.

"We propose a reconceptualization of retreat as a suite of adaptation options that are both strategic and managed," the paper states. "Strategy integrates retreat into long-term development goals and identifies why retreat should occur and, in doing so, influences where and when."

The billions of dollars spent to rebuild the Jersey Shore and to create dunes to protect from future storms after Superstorm Sandy in 2012 may be a waste if sea level rise inundates the entire coastline.

"There's a definite rhetoric of, 'We're going to build it back better. We're going to win. We're going to beat this. Something technological is going to come and it's going to save us,'" said A.R. Siders, an assistant professor with the disaster research center at the University of Delaware and lead author of the paper, to the New York Times. "It's like, let's step back and think for a minute. You're in a fight with the ocean. You're fighting to hold the ocean in place. Maybe that's not the battle we want to pick."

Rethinking retreat could make it a strategic, efficient, and equitable way to adapt to the climate crisis, the study says.

Dr. Siders pointed out that it has happened before. She noted that in the 1970s, the small town of Soldiers Grove, Wisconsin moved itself out of the flood plain after one too many floods. The community found and reoriented the business district to take advantage of highway traffic and powered it entirely with solar energy, as the New York Times reported.

That's an important lesson now that rising sea levels pose a catastrophic risk around the world. Nearly 75 percent of the world's cities are along shorelines. In the U.S. alone coastline communities make up nearly 40 percent of the population— more than 123 million people, which is why Siders and her research team are so forthright about the urgency and the complexities of their findings, according to Harvard Magazine.

Some of those complexities include, coordinating moves across city, state or even international lines; cultural and social considerations like the importance of burial grounds or ancestral lands; reparations for losses or damage to historic practices; long-term social and psychological consequences; financial incentives that often contradict environmental imperatives; and the critical importance of managing retreat in a way that protects vulnerable and poor populations and that doesn't exacerbate past injustices, as Harvard Magazine reported.

If communities could practice strategic retreats, the study says, doing so would not only reduce the need for people to choose among bad options, but also improve their circumstances.

"It's a lot to think about," said Siders to Harvard Magazine. "And there are going to be hard choices. It will hurt—I mean, we have to get from here to some new future state, and that transition is going to be hard.…But the longer we put off making these decisions, the worse it will get, and the harder the decisions will become."

To help the transition, the paper recommends improved access to climate-hazard maps so communities can make informed choices about risk. And, the maps need to be improved and updated regularly, the paper said as the New York Times reported.


"It's not that everywhere should retreat," said Dr. Siders to the New York Times. "It's that retreat should be an option. It should be a real viable option on the table that some places will need to use."

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