As McDonald's today took the next step in recalling 12 million Shrek drinking glasses found to contain elevated levels of cadmium, both the company and the Consumer Product Safety Commission sought to tamp down concerns about the risk of the hazardous metal increasingly replacing lead in popular products.
Customers can return their glasses to McDonald's restaurants starting tomorrow and receive a $3 refund -- $1 more than the items' purchase price -- according to a notice posted on the company's website. But the returns are just the beginning of the next chapter in the cadmium debate, with the CPSC poised to set new limits on the metal even as it downplays the McDonald's recall and environmental advocates aim to use the episode to build momentum for reform of federal toxics law.
After Congress passed strict new lead-testing rules for children's products in 2008, "a number of companies in China started shifting to cadmium instead, because it wasn't subject to the regulations, and as a result, they have gone to a metal that's arguably even worse in terms of potential health effects," Environmental Defense Fund Senior Scientist Richard Denison said.
"That concern is kind of symptomatic of the need for a more systematic approach here that doesn't go chemical by chemical," he added, "and gives the EPA the ultimate authority to identify chemicals and particular uses of chemicals that should be restricted or eliminated."
That shift is embodied in pending House and Senate bills updating the 34-year-old Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) by empowering EPA to rein in a range of chemicals by requiring manufacturers to prove the substances are safe before using them.
CPSC, however, currently limits cadmium in children's toys to 75 parts per million and is working on new rules to limit the metal's presence in all children's products. McDonald's and the agency agreed on a voluntary recall of the glasses after their exterior enamel was found to contain cadmium in excess of the agency's soon-to-be-released standard.
CPSC spokesman Scott Wolfson drew a line between the lower levels of cadmium found in the Shrek glasses and the much higher cadmium concentrations, as high as 91 percent, that sparked a series of children's jewelry recalls earlier this year.
"What's so important is for parents to understand the difference. ... Children are not at an acute risk; the glasses are not toxic," Wolfson said, adding that "there are no signs we're looking at a wave here of cadmium becoming the next lead."
Cadmium occurs naturally in small amounts in soil and some foods but is carcinogenic to humans and can result in negative health effects such as bone softening if ingested. The metal is considered particularly harmful to children, who often touch hands to mouths after touching items such as jewelry or drinking glasses.
After an Associated Press investigation first uncovered the high cadmium levels in some children's jewelry, CPSC Chairwoman Inez Tenenbaum publicly warned manufacturers in Hong Kong not to replace lead with cadmium or other toxic metals.
Tenenbaum told senators in April that "we really don't think" companies are deliberately swapping out lead for other hazardous chemicals, "but we think they're being careless and not realizing that you cannot use these metals in children's products."
What's a 'children's product'?
It remains to be seen whether the new CPSC cadmium rules would apply to items such as the Shrek glasses, which were painted with the likenesses of characters from the new movie "Shrek Forever After."
"I'd certainly consider a Shrek glass to be a children's product," said Don Mays, the senior director of product safety planning at Consumers Union. "Right now, it's sort of in the gap of regulation."
CPSC formally proposed a definition of the term "children's product" in an April Federal Register notice, which Wolfson said would guide its use of regulatory authority under the Federal Hazardous Substances Act. "Just because there may be a certain design on a product, there's more to it than that in terms of what we look at to characterize who the intended audience is," he said.
McDonald's also underscored the non-toxicity of the Shrek glasses in its message to customers, adding in an e-mail to Greenwire that it is "gathering facts to ensure the necessary steps are taken to dispose of the glasses properly."
In contrast to the Chinese-made children's jewelry recalled earlier in the year, the drinking glasses were manufactured in the United States, by the Millville, N.J.-based company ARC International. Ron Biagi, vice president for North American sales at ARC, said he was surprised by the recall and vouched for the safety of the glasses.
While environmental and consumer groups pointed to the importance of identifying the producer of the cadmium-tainted enamel used on the McDonald's glasses, Biagi declined to name ARC's supplier.
"It's not fair for me to pull them in," he said.