Cadmium found in children’s jewelry

January 11, 2010, 5:04 pm

Well, they got the lead out.  But unfortunately, as an Associated Press investigation published today discovered, some Chinese manufacturers of children’s jewelry have substituted cadmium, which the AP story calls even “more dangerous”.

During its investigation, AP reporters purchased 103 items of children’s jewelry in New York, Ohio, Texas,  and California.  The found that 12% of the items contained at least 10% cadmium; one piece — a “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” bracelet — had a whopping 91% cadmium by weight.  They point out that these pieces were all legal, since current restrictions apply only to painted toys, not jewelry.

Cadmium has no known role in human biochemistry. Most cadmium toxicity is chronic, from occupational exposure (welders, solderers, or jewelry workers using cadmium alloys) or environmental exposure (e.g., the “Itai-Itai” epidemic, see below).  When ingested, cadmium is absorbed and concentrated in the kidney, where it damages the proximal tubule.  Since this allows low-molecular-weight proteins to leak into the urine, proteinuria is an early sign of chronic toxicity, and is often irreversible.

Acute toxicity is much rarer.  The few reported cases involve suicidal ingestion of large amounts of cadmium salts.  Since the salts are highly corrosive, the victims develop — and often die of — hemorrhagic gastritis.  What the AP article didn’t really emphasize is that the effects of exposure such as a child might get from toy jewelry is really unknown. Whether cadmium in this instance is “more dangerous” than lead is not clear.  It will be interesting to see the results of any clinical follow-up related to this episode.

One other note on cadmium toxicity: aside from renal damage, an additional effect of chronic cadmium exposure is painful osteomalacia with pathological fractures due to impaired mineralization of formed bone. In the mid-twentieth century, there was an epidemic of cadmium poisoning in Japan when industrial cadmium released into the  Jinzu River contaminated rice fields used by the local population.  Many people developed kidney disease and painful osteomalacia which led them to name the syndrome “itai-itai” (ouch-ouch) disease.

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