Heavy metals

Despite progress, our tests still find products with lead and cadmium

Last reviewed: October 2010
Project leader screening jewelry for toxic metals
Checking up
Senior project leader Tunde Akinleye screens jewelry for lead and other toxic metals.

Two years after sweeping rules sought to limit lead in children's products, another toxic heavy metal, cadmium, is causing concern. And though retailers and manufacturers are increasingly vigilant, lead continues to appear in some items.

Lead and cadmium have accounted for the recall of millions of products in the past few months alone. The list includes painted furniture, jewelry, children's clothing, McDonald's drinking glasses, and even trinkets that kids receive at doctors' and dentists' offices.

In our latest spot check of the marketplace and in our interviews and review of documents, Consumer Reports uncovered several worrisome findings:

No clear standards for cadmium

Even as companies intensify scrutiny of lead in products, cadmium is a newly recognized threat. In our tests, we found a hair barrette with a high level of total cadmium. Many other countries, including Sweden, have moved to limit cadmium in various products, but standards in the U.S. are just being drafted.

What's a children's product?

The nation's lead standard applies to items for children under 13. But if a product is not designed or intended primarily for children, it can contain more lead. We found a cell-phone charm with lead levels so high that it would be illegal if it were considered a children's product. The charm, which carries no age-related warning label, could appeal to those 12 or younger and is sold by Claire's, a store that caters to preteenagers as well as teenagers.

What stays on the shelves?

More oversight is needed of how lead-tainted products are pulled off store shelves. Our investigation turned up a children's vinyl raincoat with parts that exceeded legal lead limits for children's products. The company sells a reformulated version that contains only low or trace amounts of lead. But we were able to buy the original version late last year, after the deadline for removal of such products.