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Beware of all that glitters – it could be cadmium

Thanks to the ubiquity of ecommerce, consumers can now buy low-cost jewellery from anywhere in the world, but this is raising serious questions about the integrity and safety of the products, particularly the presence of potentially dangerous heavy metals in cheaper goods.

In Europe, there were 102 serious risk notifications involving jewellery between 1 January and 30 June 2021, compared with just 32 in the same period of 2020. The largest number of product alerts related to chemical risk and most of these involved excessive amounts of the heavy metals including cadmium, lead and nickel.

Cadmium was by far the most frequently listed hazard. Its presence was identified in jewellery such as necklaces, bracelets, rings and earrings. In most instances, these items were manufactured in China and the Far East.

Cadmium in jewelry isn't good news. The World Health Organization lists cadmium among 10 chemicals of major public health concern, which can lead to kidney dysfunction, osteoporosis and even cancer. Yet, in 2019 during a wide-ranging European enforcement project involving 29 countries, inspectors checked 5,625 products and found that 12.1% of jewellery tested contained cadmium above the restricted concentration limit.

Of particular concern is the presence of cadmium in accessories aimed at children. While some jewellery may be deemed to have concentrations that are safe to wear — sucking, chewing on or swallowing it can have harmful effects on children or even cause death.

So why is it used at all? The simple answer is: it’s useful and cheap. Cadmium is added to silver to make it easier to produce and draw into wire, or for making jewellery. It is also mixed instead of silver in gold to produce a paler yellow or rose colour gold, to add mass, weight and give finished items a shine. It makes metal items look better and allows them to be made cheaper.

Chemical regulations

It is illegal to import jewellery that contains more than 0.01% cadmium into the EU and the UK. However, online stores and marketplaces such as eBay are still flooded with pages of cheap jewellery. There is no simple way consumers can tell if jewellery contains cadmium just by looking at it, so it’s vital that full traceability is achieved throughout the supply chain.

If you are a manufacturer, or an accessory or fashion retailer that sells any metal product that comes into direct and prolonged contact with skin, you must check that your products comply with the Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemicals (REACH) regulations for the use of nickel, lead and cadmium. In Europe, it is the responsibility of the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) to check whether registrations are in compliance with the requirements of this regulation.

Reducing risk for fast-fashion retailers

The growth of fast-fashion means many clothing retailers are now expanding into affordable jewellery lines. Some are including low-cost accessories as online ‘basket fillers’ so that shoppers can make up order values to receive free delivery.

To protect themselves and customers, sellers must audit suppliers, test goods and enforce strict quality controls. They should also be prepared to take fast remedial action through tried and tested recall processes if their supply chain is compromised.

To learn more about the rise and fall of recall trends and to acquire knowledge about how to plan for one, download our latest edition of the 2021 recall index report.

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