Chicago Green Jobs

Green Chemistry Case Study: Passing the Buck on Cadmium
January 12, 2010, 5:24 pm
Filed under: Green Chemistry

Thought experiment time! One of my favorite things about business school was reviewing case studies. It’s so interesting to dig into how business decisions are made in the real world where there are complications and loopholes and conflicting needs. There’s a doozy of a business problem in the news these days, so I thought I’d try my hand at boiling it down.

The situation:

You know how kids love jewelry and don’t have a lot of pocket money? Well, retailers like Walmart and Claire’s meet this market need by stocking super cheap Chinese imports, like Disney themed “Princess and the Frog” charms. Only it turns out that lots of these imports are made with cadmium, a shiny and malleable metal that also happens to rank 7th on the Center for Disease Control’s priority list of the 275 most hazardous substances to human health. Cadmium is a known human carcinogen and tests show that children can ingest unsafe levels of this poison by biting, sucking, or swallowing it. An independent study by the Associated Press showed that some of these charms and necklaces were made of up to 90% cadmium by weight.

“How horrible!” I hear you cry. “Who is responsible for this outrage?”

The likely suspects:

1. The Manufacturer

The LA Times interviewed a Chinese jewelry manufacturer:

“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. “We just make what our clients order. If they pay more, we use the better raw material, and vice-versa. From a few cents to a few dollars, we can make the same style of jewelry product with a different raw material.”

Asked what he thought about the health risks associated with cadmium and other toxic metals, He said: “I can’t be overly concerned about that.”

2. The Retailer

ABC ran an excerpt from Claire’s statement:

“Claire’s has its products tested by independent accredited third-party laboratories approved by the Consumer Product Safety Commission in compliance with the commission’s standards, and has passing test results for the bracelet using these standards.”

Two more suspects after the jump.

3. The US Government

ABC also ran a quoe from Gib Mullan, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission’s director of compliance and field operations:

The CPSC has received dozens of incident reports of cadmium in products over the past few years, said Gib Mullan, the agency’s director of compliance and field operations. Though the CPSC has authority to go after a product deemed a public danger under the Federal Hazardous Substances Act – the law used in lead-related recalls several years ago – there have been no enforcement actions. “We are a small agency so we can’t do everything we think would be a good idea. We have to try to pick our spots,” Mullan said.

4. All of us

Consumer Product Safety Commission Chairman Inez Tenenbaum released a statement that says:

“All of us should be committed to keeping hazardous or toxic levels of heavy metals out of surface coatings and substrates of toys and children’s products.”

Now that is some Olympic quality buck passing there, my friends. Give our contestants a hand!

The answer:

This is a trick question! The truth is that we will keep seeing problems like this crop up as long as we rely on a compliance based regulatory system to protect us from human health hazards. We’ve known for decades that lead is a severe health hazard for children and adults, but it wasn’t until Congress passed legislation in 2008 restricting lead usage in children’s toys that manufacturers and retailers bothered to actually rethink putting lead-tainted products on shelves. And it’s a funny thing – the drop in lead use led directly to a rise in the use of the arguably more dangerous cadmium. We clearly have a systemic problem that can’t be fixed by saddling our regulatory agencies with the task of methodically investigating and banning every possible human health hazard.

So how do we structure a new system that actually protects human health? It’s a complicated question, but here are two starting principles:

1. Start with an assumption that chemicals are unsafe until proven safe, not safe until proven unsafe.

2. Shift the burden of proof of product safety to industry instead of government.

I can practically hear the business press wailing about expense from here, and I concede that both of those principles are much easier said than done. On the other hand, it’s not as though we aren’t paying the price for unsafe consumer goods now – it’s just that it’s spread out to individual consumers who are getting sick and individual communities that are getting polluted.

Edited to add that according to this morning’s New York Times, Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J. is actually drafting legislation to shift the burden of proof of product safety away from government and towards industry. That smug sound you hear is me basking in the warm, cuddly rays of my prediction that  we’re going to see action on Green Chemistry this year.


1 Comment so far
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Contestant Number 4, All of Us is particularly infuriating. I don’t have a chemistry lab in my basement to see what the stuff I bring home is made of.

Comment by masaccio

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