LOS ANGELES - Concern about the heavy metal cadmium in jewelry grew this week as a California environmental group said new testing of adult necklaces and bracelets bought at three leading retailers, including Saks Fifth Avenue and Aeropostale, detected high levels of the toxic material - as much as 75 per cent by weight.
One of the pieces was made in China and another was made in India. Labelling on a black-coloured link necklace, purchased at Saks for US$69.99, did not indicate where it was made.
Based on the results of its testing, the Center for Environmental Health said it would seek a ban on cadmium in all jewelry.
The centre said Tuesday that it began lab testing adult jewelry for cadmium after an Associated Press investigation reported last month that pieces of cheap children's jewelry imported from China contained levels of cadmium of up to 91 per cent of their total content.
In response to an AP inquiry about the adult jewelry findings, the parent company of Catherines, a national chain of plus-size stores, said Tuesday that it was pulling a bracelet with a pink "breast cancer awareness" charm that was found to have high levels of cadmium from all 460 of its stories. The item, made in China, was bought for US$6.99.
Saks Inc. spokeswoman Julia Bentley said only: "We received a letter from the CEH today and are reviewing and evaluating this matter."
Aeropostale did not respond to requests for comment after tests showed that a circular pendant on a necklace bought at the retailer for US$7.99 also revealed a relatively high level of cadmium, according to the centre. The piece was made in India.
The Center for Environmental Health said it was pursuing a lawsuit under a California law it used to set stringent limits on lead in both adult and children's jewelry in the state, starting in 2006. The settlement of that lawsuit was pivotal in national efforts to reduce lead levels in all metal jewelry sold in the United States.
There is no limit under federal law on cadmium in jewelry sold in the U.S.
In the latest testing, besides the three adult jewelry pieces, a US$7.90 cupcake-shaped pendant on a necklace bought at the tween store Justice also had a high level of cadmium, the centre said.
"Our legal action sends a strong signal to industry that we will not stand by while they play toxic flavour of the month with jewelry," said Michael Green, the group's executive director.
"Cadmium is toxic at any age. There is no excuse for cadmium in any jewelry, and we intend to eliminate this health threat to women and children," he said.
The centre's testing had revealed cadmium in adult jewelry dating to at least September 2008, but its focus had been on lead until the AP investigation.
Gayle Coolick, a vice-president for Charming Shoppes, Inc., of Pennsylvania, said it was pulling the breast cancer awareness charm and bracelet from all its Catherines stores, not just those in California.
"As Charming Shoppes and its subsidiaries do not market or sell children's items, and as the (Consumer Product Safety Commission) has warned against the use of cadmium in children's products, Charming Shoppes has not tested for this metal for its products marketed and sold to adults," she said. "It is Charming Shoppes' intent to follow all state and federal requirements with regard to product safety."
In its analysis, the Center for Environmental Health did an initial screening of 97 jewelry items with a technology called XRF, which uses X-rays to estimate how much of a metal is in an item. Alarmingly high levels of cadmium were detected in seven pieces.
Four of these were sent to a Chicago-based lab, Stat Analysis, for detailed analysis, with the other three planned for later analysis, according to centre spokesman Charles Margulis.
Cadmium is used primarily in rechargeable nickel-cadmium batteries, as well as in pigments, electroplating and plastic.
Cadmium is a known carcinogen, particularly when it is inhaled in a factory or other workplace. It also can cause serious problems with kidneys and bones, diseases that typically are caused by cadmium that has been ingested in contaminated food or tobacco. The exact risks to adults aren't clear because typically the metal takes long-term exposure to cause the diseases.
Children's jewelry has been of particular concern because kids bite and suck on jewelry - something far less common among adults. Microscopic amounts of cadmium also could be shed onto the hands, and then ingested either by eating or putting a contaminated finger to the mouth.
A spokesman for the Fashion Jewelry Trade Association said the group did not have access to the Center for Environmental Health data, so it could not comment in detail. Executive director Michael Gale did say that the group remains "confident in the safety of our members' jewelry products." He added, "Based on available data, cadmium in jewelry does not pose health risks to adults or children."
The California environmental group sent notices late Monday to the four retailers that it intends to sue based on its lab test results; under California law, no lawsuit can be filed for 60 days, during which time state or local prosecutors can decide to take over the case.
The four companies are now parties to what is often called the Burlington settlement - an agreement based on a Center for Environmental Health lawsuit under which major national retailers agreed to reduce levels of lead in jewelry. That settlement was significant because it included the first widely observed limits for lead on adult items.
Under California legislation passed in 2006, the upper limit for lead in adult jewelry is far higher than what is allowed for children's jewelry because the health concerns were not as pronounced.
Within hours of AP's Jan. 10 report on high levels of cadmium in children's jewelry, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission launched an investigation.
The next day, Wal-Mart Stores Inc. announced it was pulling three of the contaminated items from store shelves. The Consumer Product Safety Commission has since advised parents to throw away all cheap children's metal jewelry and federal lawmakers have proposed legislation to ban cadmium in children's jewelry. Last week, the Consumer Product Safety Commission announced a recall of two of the items sold at Walmart stores.