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Cadmium's presence in inexpensive jewelry can be dangerous

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jackiewheeler | Sep 16, 2011 05:00 AM

Those of us here in the West have become sadly accustomed to news about contamination associated with copper and uranium mining, especially in recent years as these industries have experienced resurgence. However, a new variant of this disturbing topic has arisen the last few months that has a strong potential to affect urban dwellers and others who might not see themselves as direct victims of pollution from mines that are primarily in rural areas. 

The new specter is cadmium, a byproduct metal of copper and zinc processing.  Cadmium has an astonishing array of industrial and commercial uses. In various forms, it is present in batteries, ceramic glazes and pigments, solders, and pesticides.  The current scrutiny involves the presence of large amounts of cadmium found in cheap metal jewelry, primarily of the sort found in discount stores. Overseas manufacturers of this jewelry use the cadmium as a cheap filler, just as lead (now outlawed) was once used. Problem is, cadmium is a known carcinogen and can produce many other nasty effects such as kidney damage, reproductive problems, and anemia.

While some cadmium-tainted adult jewelry has shown up at upscale stores such as Saks’, primary concern has kid's necklacebeen focused on inexpensive pieces designed for children. Young children are at much higher risk for cadmium poisoning, due to their tendency to put jewelry and other small items into their mouths. After a recent legal settlement in California, many large companies such as Target pulled contaminated merchandise from shelves. However, other, smaller discount retailers may not have gotten the message. That’s a problem, because as the recession drags on, more and more Americans have been relying on these stores both for basic needs and for extras such as gifts. It is unknown how much of the jewelry may have been purchased for and used by children, but certainly the shockingly high percentages of cadmium found in some of these products are cause for worry about our most vulnerable populations, including low-income and immigrant families who may not have access to the Web or other sources of information about the issue.

There is a small silver lining (geeky pun: cadmium is used in electroplating). Cadmium toxicity has been heavily studied, and the scientific consensus seems to be that aside from ingestion or prolonged inhalation (mainly in industrial settings), cadmium does not easily enter the body. For example, cadmium cannot be absorbed in significant amounts through the skin, so occasional wearers of tainted jewelry are not likely to be affected.  If the (correct, non-paranoid) message can get out to the families of children at risk, than this could end up being a temporary crisis.

Essays in the A Just West blog are not written by High Country News. The authors are solely responsible for the content.

Jackie Wheeler teaches writing and environmental rhetoric at Arizona State University.

Image courtesy Flickr user BeInspiredDesigns. 

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