Reporting from Beijing — The cupcake-shaped pendants came in shades of blue and pink, studded with rhinestones. Meant for little girls, they hung on simple faux-silver necklaces and cost as little as $8.
And they were potentially deadly, according to consumer advocates. This type of cheap costume jewelry made with the metal cadmium, which can be toxic at high levels, is at the heart of the latest "made in China" scare.
Since January, the Consumer Product Safety Commission has targeted more than 200,000 pieces of cheap jewelry from China that were made with cadmium and sold at numerous national retail chains, including Wal-Mart and Claire's. The latest recall, issued in July, targeted the cupcake pendant necklaces and other items that were sold at Justice clothing stores for preteen girls.
The recalls have not nearly reached the level of those a few years ago for Chinese toys containing lead. In all, about 45 million items were pulled from shelves in 2007 because they had dangerously high levels of lead.
Since U.S. legislation in 2008 all but banned lead in children's products, Chinese factories have increasingly turned to cadmium as a substitute. Like lead, cadmium added shape and weight to jewelry, and was cheap.
Because entry into low-end jewelry manufacturing in China is inexpensive, competition is tough and factories do all they can to stay afloat, even if that means using toxic materials.
"These aren't lawless companies; they're smaller companies who face enormous pressure and will do whatever they can to lower their price," said Chris Devereux, founder of Chinasavvy, a sourcing company with offices in China, the U.S. and Britain.
A manager at Ruyi Accessories, a jewelry factory in Zhejiang province, said a ton of zinc alloy — which U.S. officials recommend Chinese manufacturers use instead of lead — would cost his company 28,000 yuan, or $4,100, but a ton of cadmium would be just half of that.
"The key to this problem is price. We can produce lead-free, cadmium-free, 100% safe products, but the price of such products is never cheap," said the manager, Zeng, who would give only his last name.
But health advocates say cadmium poses serious dangers.
"Cadmium is toxic to humans," said Ruth A. Lawrence, professor of pediatrics at the University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry. "Children are especially susceptible to even small exposures of cadmium from metal toys and trinkets, which can damage their developing organs."
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency labels cadmium a "probable human carcinogen," with most exposure to humans coming from the burning of fossil fuels. Smokers tend to have twice as much cadmium in their bodies as nonsmokers, the EPA said.
Children who suck on or swallow toys made with cadmium could be especially vulnerable, experts said.
Tests on animals exposed to cadmium have shown bone weakening, and offspring of animals exposed during pregnancy have shown behavioral and learning ability defects.
"Granted, more studies need to be done, but these effects seen in animals and the known effects documented in human exposures should be taken seriously," said Norma Barton, a specialist in poison information at the University of Rochester.
Among the cadmium-related recalls this year, a line of Miley Cyrus jewelry from Wal-Mart was called back in February and McDonald's recalled nearly 12 million Shrek-themed Happy Meal glasses in June.
There is a federal law that severely limits the use of cadmium in paint, but it does not apply to jewelry. In July, Rep. Jackie Speier (D- San Francisco) introduced a toxic metal protections bill, which would limit the use of cadmium to 75 parts per million in jewelry meant for children. The measure is now in a House committee.
In the meantime, the Consumer Product Safety Commission has been testing imports and has turned away one shipment coming from China of metal children's jewelry, agency spokesman Scott Wolfson said.
The nonprofit Empire State Consumer Assn. has been randomly testing children's items for cadmium since 2007. "Every month we test, and every month we're finding items with heavy metals in them," said the group's founder, Judy Braiman.
"We want the government to act faster to get these contaminated products off shelves," she said.
China has its own limits on cadmium in export items, but such standards are not strictly enforced, Devereux said, especially at small, privately owned factories that fly under the radar of national regulations.
None of the three factories whose officials were interviewed for this report were subject to inspections. Factory officials said they hadn't heard of the government closing down other manufacturers.
"The problem is that China is not proactive but reactive. Once they start getting bad publicity, they'll take action," Devereux said. "If there isn't that publicity, something like using cadmium will continue with no one worrying about it."
Kuo is a special correspondent.