LOS ANGELES -- The 12 million "Shrek" glasses pulled by McDonald's last spring amid federal concerns about cadmium did not have unsafe levels of the toxic metal, judging by revised intake limits regulators unveiled Tuesday.
The Consumer Product Safety Commission, which has been scrambling to deal with risks posed by cadmium since high levels were found in some children's jewelry, also said it won't insist on mandatory limits for an element that can damage kidneys and bones. Instead, the agency will defer to an independent, private-sector group that has been drafting voluntary limits for several months.
Tuesday's guidance represents a shift for an agency that reacted aggressively to a January investigation in which The Associated Press revealed that some Chinese jewelry manufacturers were substituting high levels of cadmium for lead, which recent federal law effectively banned.
Agency Chairman Inez Tenenbaum went so far as to advise parents to get rid of all cheap metal trinkets. Within weeks, the CPSC announced its first-ever recall of jewelry due to cadmium, this one involving Disney-branded items sold at Walmart. Four more recalls followed, implicating nearly 300,000 pieces of jewelry; the agency also leaned on McDonald's to pull the "Shrek" movie-themed drinking glasses.
Tuesday's long-awaited guidance from commission staff suggests an "acceptable daily intake" of cadmium that is more than triple what it had previously considered the maximum safe level. Based on further research, it raised the level from 0.03 micrograms per day for every kilogram of a child's body weight to 0.1 micrograms per kilogram per day.
The agency recommended that level in hopes that the private-sector group -- which includes representatives of the jewelry industry and consumer groups -- will adopt it. The level is in line with recommendations from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for the threshold below which no health effects are expected, provided the exposure lasts less than one year.
"The scientific guidance provided by CPSC staff is highly protective of children," Tenenbaum told reporters. She said that the agency was obligated to let a legitimate voluntary standard process unfold, but that if the levels weren't satisfactory, mandatory rules could come.
The guidance is aimed at children's jewelry rather than glassware, but under it, the CPSC would not have considered any of the four "Shrek" designs on the McDonald's glasses sold this year to be unsafe, according to Jay Howell, director of the agency's office of hazard identification and reduction. Using its earlier standard, the agency found cadmium levels in one of the designs posed an unacceptable risk; McDonald's ended up recalling all four.
A McDonald's spokeswoman, Danya Proud, said the fast food giant had no new comment and stood by the recall as the right thing to do at the time.
Cadmium accumulates in the body, stays for years, and at high enough levels can cause kidneys to leak vital protein and bones to soften so much they snap. People absorb trace amounts just by eating leafy greens or smoking cigarettes; the most likely scenario with jewelry is that children would increase the burden on their bodies if they bite or suck on pendants or bracelets which easily shed the toxic metal.
Cadmium exposure is of particular concern for children. Growing bodies readily absorb what they ingest, and several studies have concluded that as cadmium exposure increases, children are more likely to have learning disabilities or lower IQs.
There have been no reports of children with health complications from cadmium in the U.S. due to jewelry -- though doctors have not looked because they didn't know the metal was in products children handle. The only child's death attributed to cadmium was a nearly 3-year-old Canadian boy; researchers concluded his exposure came from home items such as paint, batteries or cadmium-electroplated utensils.
Jewelry makers say low levels of cadmium have been used for years without any problems. The best explanation for the shift to making items that are predominantly cadmium is that Chinese manufacturers needed a cheap alternative to lead -- and cadmium prices had plummeted due to excess supplies from the shriveling nickel-cadmium battery market.
Federal law allows the agency to target products it deems a danger to children, but its initial approach had an improvisational feel: Regulators never publicly stated what level of the metal would prompt them to act. The lack of a target number frustrated jewelry importers and manufacturers.
Now, instead of pursuing formal, mandatory limits on cadmium, the agency is opting to follow the approach advocated by businesses: self-policing through voluntary standards. That means the CPSC is deferring to the respected standard-setting group ASTM International, which several months ago convened representatives of the jewelry industry, consumer advocates and the agency to write new cadmium-in-jewelry guidelines.
While the agency is influential on the independent committee, it doesn't have a vote. If it wasn't happy with the voluntary standard it could pursue mandatory standards -- its approach on several safety issues under Tenenbaum.
One advantage to the voluntary standards route is that it is faster, spokesman Scott Wolfson said -- the federal mandatory rule-making process can take years, while voluntary standards can be passed in months. Also, if the independent committee decides to fold new jewelry guidelines into an existing standard on toys that Congress incorporated into major consumer protection legislation in 2008, the new levels would become mandatory.
Even before the agency held its first hearing on cadmium, in April, major retailers including Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and Target Corp. decided to require suppliers of children's goods to show their products passed a cadmium test used by the European Union. Jewelry importers and manufacturers soon rallied around the same testing regimen, but CPSC staff want more rigorous standards.
While most children would face cadmium exposure by biting or sucking on jewelry, regulators wanted to guard against a worst-case scenario in which a child swallows an item. To replicate that, testing methods measure how much cadmium would be dissolved by stomach acid and thus potentially absorbed into the body. The European test favored by industry lasts for two hours; the CPSC's guidance says the test should last 24 hours.
Laws limiting cadmium in jewelry have been passed in four states, including California, which because of its influence on the national market effectively becomes the standard in the absence of formal national rules.
The key difference between California's new law and what the CPSC unveiled Tuesday is this: California's limits are based on how much cadmium a piece of jewelry contains (its "total content"), while the CPSC focused instead on how much cadmium a child might be exposed to. The total content approach is far more strict.
For example, 14 of the 103 items tested for AP as part of its original investigation in January would have failed the California limit of no more than 0.03 percent cadmium (one "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" charm, later recalled, was 91 percent cadmium). But several of those 14 would have passed the CPSC's proposed test.