Sunday, January 17, 2010

Connections: Cadmium-Tainted Children's Jewelry and Why We Should Still Buy Newspapers

China is a country intent on growth from increasing exports but, whether through ignorance, carelessness or greed, it has a history of selling contaminated products, such as toothpaste, cough syrup and melamine-tainted milk. When they arrive in the U.S., all of those products fall under the jurisdiction of the Food and Drug Administration, the federal agency charged with the daunting task of regulating and ensuring the safety of food, drugs and many other products that affect our health.

Many other consumer products, including toys and jewelry, are the concern of the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, another agency with a gigantic task involving the protection of the American public. Because of China's woeful record with deadly exported food, it should come as no great surprise that companies in China have been selling dangerous cadmium-laden inexpensive children's jewelry and trinkets to the U.S. Recent studies indicate that cadmium may be more toxic than lead to the developing brains of very young children. It was rather astonishing that the public response from at least one Chinese jewelry seller just a day after the Associated Press broke this story was that using cadmium cuts costs and profit was the only concern for the makers (see this article):

"Business is business, and it's all up to our client," said He Huihua, manager of the Suiyuan Jewelry Shop at International Trade City in Yiwu, a sprawling wholesale mecca where sellers pitch their wares in hopes of landing a lucrative export contract."

The response by U.S. retailers was swift. Wal-Mart pulled the jewelry immediately and other retailers followed suit. I would imagine that Wal-Mart, so often the big corporate "bad guy" in consumer stories, enjoyed having an opportunity to take an indisputably correct stance:

"Melissa Hill, a spokeswoman for Wal-Mart Stores Inc., called the AP findings 'troubling.' She said the company, which is the world's largest retailer, had a special responsibility 'to take swift action, and we are doing so.'"

AP writers Justin Pritchard and Jeff Donn also reported:

"U.S.-based trade groups, as well as distributors and sellers of the jewelry containing cadmium, said their products meet safety standards. Cadmium is regulated in painted toys but not in jewelry. . . 'This is just the latest example of the need for stronger consumer safety laws in this country, especially for products manufactured and marketed for children, and shows yet again why products from China should be subject to additional scrutiny,' said Rep. Rosa L. DeLauro, a Connecticut Democrat."

What an interesting, complex story that involves government agencies, corporations, and most significantly and wonderfully, at least to me, the press:

1. Cadmium, a hazardous metal, is not federally regulated when used in jewelry, information reported in the press when this story broke, resulting in many calls for such regulation.

2. Children's jewelry that was saturated with the metal (sometimes as much as 90% of its content) was manufactured in China because using the metal was cheap, as the press discovered through their own AP-funded investigation and research.

The press reported that the jewelry was being exported to major U.S. retailers whose primary appeal to the public is offering inexpensive goods.

4. The retailers stopped selling the jewelry, we hope for wholly for ethical and responsible reasons, but also certainly to avoid a public relations nightmare in the press.

5. Consumers are being alerted by the press so that they can get rid of the tainted jewelry before their children are harmed.

Internet lovers (and, obviously, I like being online, too), please take note that it was the Associated Press that broke this story. The AP, a mainstream media giant, was founded in 1846. Here's its mission statement (italics are mine):

"AP's mission is to be the essential global news network, providing distinctive news services of the highest quality, reliability and objectivity with reports that are accurate, balanced and informed. AP operates as a not-for-profit cooperative with more than 4,000 employees working in more than 240 worldwide bureaus. AP is owned by its 1,500 U.S. daily newspaper members. They elect a board of directors that directs the cooperative."

Those daily newspapers are suffering right now, cutting back reporters and columnists, and struggling to provide a crucial service to all of us.

Even the most noble government servants must deal with bureaucracies and political agendas, and even the most benevolent corporations are beholden to stockholders and profit motives, but a truly free press is the thoughtful consumer's best friend.

The LA Times. The New York Times. The Washington Post.

Your paper?

© 2010 Cynthia Friedlob
Photo credit: Lusi at Stock.XCHNG

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