Major national retailers, including Target Corp. and Gap Inc., have agreed to all but eliminate the toxic metal cadmium in jewelry and other accessories they sell.
Starting in 2012, jewelry sold at the stores in California must contain less than 0.03 percent cadmium _ a soft, whitish metal that in high enough amounts can cause cancer and other harm. Because of the size of California's market, that effectively becomes a national limit _ though it doesn't carry the force of law in other states.
Five states have passed legislation limiting cadmium in jewelry, but typically they apply to items intended for kids, who are especially vulnerable to poisoning.
The new legal agreement, approved by a California judge Friday, applies to children's and adult jewelry. It is between the Oakland-based Center for Environmental Health and 26 retailers and suppliers, also among them Aeropostale, Old Navy, Banana Republic and Claire's, an international jewelry and accessories chain store.
The state laws and lawsuits followed an Associated Press investigation that last year revealed some Chinese jewelry manufacturers were substituting cadmium for lead, which Congress effectively banned due to its own hazards. Several bracelet charms and pendants tested for AP were more than 90 percent cadmium.
Settlement negotiations began last year, after the CEH filed notices under California's Proposition 65, a law intended to keep potentially hazardous materials away from the public. Those filings effectively forced the firms to the table.
A key point was how to determine what made a piece of jewelry a problem.
While the companies wanted to focus on how much cadmium could rub onto someone's hands during normal use _ and then go from hand to mouth to stomach _ the CEH insisted on a test that measures how much cadmium a piece contains, whether or not it escapes.
It's a much more health-protective approach, and one that industry has said is overkill.
"The cost of trying to get a rational standard would have been much more expensive," because the cases would have to be litigated rather than settled out of court, said attorney Eileen Nottoli, who represented about half of the firms involved.
Over time, even small quantities of cadmium can damage the kidneys and bones. Some research suggests it can stunt the development of young brains.
"We welcome this strong action, which will protect our children and families from the health risks of an unnecessary hazard in jewelry," said Michael Green, executive director of CEH.
The center has ongoing negotiations with several other retailers, including Wal-Mart Stores Inc.
While states and companies have announced binding safety levels based on laws and settlements, federal regulators are relying on the work of a private-sector group called ASTM International, which sets voluntary industry safety standards for everything from medical products to toys.
That process is wrapping up in mid-September, according to the leader of the ASTM subcommittee working on cadmium in jewelry. The standard will have an initial screening level of 0.03 percent cadmium _ if a piece of jewelry fails, it will be subjected to a test that determines how much would leach out if it is licked or swallowed.
"We have indeed made significant progress on promoting the safety of children's products based on risk assessment and current science," said Brent Cleaveland, the subcommittee head and executive director of the Fashion Jewelry and Accessories Trade Association.
Pritchard can be reached at http://twitter.com/lalanewsman