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Cadmium in jewelry: when will product quality finally outweigh a cheap price? January 28, 2010

Posted by Lindsey Realmuto in Environmental Health, Global Health, Occupational Health.
This is not a time to be envious of all those young parents out there. Beyond the normal pressures of raising a child, parents nowadays have to worry about bisphenol-A in baby bottles, lead paint in toys, whether or not to eat fish while pregnant or breast-feeding, and now most recently, cadmium in jewelry. Cadmium? Really? I am referring to the latest safety notice to parents about cadmium in jewelry imported from China, reported by Justin Pritchard at the Associated Press.
To make matters somehow worse, it appears the use of cadmium has been a result of US pressure aimed at China to stop using lead. Brilliant idea: let’s replace one toxic metal with an even more toxic metal. Cadmium is a known carcinogen (not probable but known) and is ranked #7 on CDC’s 275 most hazardous substances in the environment list. More recent research has also demonstrated that cadmium has even more potent neurotoxic effects than lead, as reported in the Associated Press articles. And some of the products tested in this recent development had close to 90% cadmium by weight!
The chairman of the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), Chairman Tenenbaum, was in China on Tuesday, January 12th, “praising the removal of lead in children’s products [but] …encouraged manufacturers in China to refrain from substituting cadmium, antimony or barium in place of lead.” Right…thanks guys for doing such a great job of removing one neurotoxin from products intended for children. Do you think you could try to keep even more dangerous metals out of products… pretty please? I guess that’s a hard sell to make to the same country that previously allowed melamine to be part of infant formula solution, causing at least a dozen deaths and sickened 12,000 babies.
So here’s the question: when is enough going to be enough? How many more incidents of dangerous imported products are we, as informed consumers, going to endure before we finally come to the realization that maybe buying cheaper isn’t justified in the long run? This modern dilemma can be applied to other sectors of our lives as well; for example, food. In essence, there are two contradictory economic principles at work here which are described in Michael Pollans’s book, “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” in which the author explores our current agricultural system by tracing four different meals back to their points of origin. Pollan distinguishes between the industrial and artisanal models in terms of agriculture production. In the modern industrial model, 
“farmers are in the business of selling commodities…where the only viable competitive strategy is to be the least-cost producer. In a commodity business a producer must sell ever more cheaply and grow ever bigger or be crushed by a competitor who does.”

This is in comparison to the artisanal model “where the competitive strategy is based on selling something special rather than being the least-cost productive.” (Page 249)

China has become completely entrenched in the industrial model of production: produce products as cheaply as possible, no matter what the costs to your workers, the environment, or the health of your community, to outcompete every other country. This strategy has worked amazingly well but it is becoming increasingly hard to ignore the hidden societal and environmental costs incurred by this economic model.

The continuing environmental degradation in China and the devastating public health impacts are not sustainable. Clearly our government has no interest in taking any real action in response to any of these problems, which leaves the ultimate solution in the hands of the consumer.  Do not underestimate the power of your dollar.



1. Gretchen Giannelli - January 29, 2010

Lindsey, glad my kids are grown, but I cringe when I remember all the plastic baby bottles and toys I used. Also remember how in the 90s we were urged to eat fish while pregnant because it was so healthy. That cadmium has snuck its way in in place of lead is something we should all be concerned about.

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