Cadmium Exposure from Cheap Jewelry

Examples of Jewelry

Cadmium is a toxic heavy metal that can cause kidney damage, osteoporosis, diabetes, high blood pressure, cancer and an increased risk of death (Nawrot 2010). Cadmium exposure can occur from contaminated food and drink, smoking, work exposures and contaminated house dust, among other sources. Since the metal is shiny, cheap and melts at low temperature, it is often used in cheap jewelry. While a couple of state governments limit cadmium levels in children’s jewelry, cadmium content in jewelry meant for adults is unregulated in the United states. And while cheap adult jewelry may not be marketed to children, children can still be given adult jewelry products that contain high levels of the metal.

Cheap Jewelry in the United States

A study from 2021 acquired 80 items from a discount jewelry store in Ohio (Kern 2021). The items were tested for cadmium content. From there, levels of cadmium exposure were estimated for a child who places the jewelry in their mouth or inadvertently swallows some of the smaller pieces. Of the 80 jewelry items, 40% contained detectable cadmium. 

The study went on to analyze nine of the high cadmium items and found them to contain between 30% and 90% cadmium. The majority of these items were capable of releasing a dose of cadmium above what is considered safe for daily exposure if placed in the mouth by a child. If the jewelry was damaged, cadmium release was dramatically higher, with one ring releasing almost 600 times above the safe daily exposure limit. If accidentally swallowed, the items could expose a child to even higher levels of cadmium. 

Cheap Jewelry in the European Union

While laws exist banning cadmium in jewelry in the European Union, enforcement is lax and numerous instances of cheap jewelry still containing cadmium have been found. In 2015, 105 jewelry items were purchased. Of these, 23 had an average cadmium content of 35%. A similar study in 2016 also had similar findings (Pouzar 2017).   

Cheap Jewelry on Chinese E-Commerce Platforms

One of the places where cheap jewelry is readily found is on Chinese e-commerce websites. Between 2022 and 2023, 106 pieces of low cost jewelry were purchased online from Chinese e-commerce websites (Jurowski 2023). The jewelry was tested for lead, cadmium and mercury. All of the jewelry items tested positive for at least one of the three heavy metals. 

Mercury was the most commonly encountered metal, found in 90% of the jewelry. Cadmium was present in 51% and lead in 21% of cheap jewelry products. Of the products containing cadmium, half were above the legal limits set by the European Union. For lead, 70% were above legal limits. While these products were purchased in Europe, they are available for purchase online throughout the rest of the world. 

A Systematic Review of Children’s Jewelry and Toys

Jewelry Pendants

To assess the scope of the problem, researchers in 2022 reviewed the published research on toxicants found in children’s jewelry and toys. Numerous metals that could be toxic in large amounts were found, including lead, nickel, cadmium, arsenic and mercury, among others. The study concluded that toxic metals in children’s products is an ongoing problem that has not been resolved through current regulations (Fadaei 2022).


Toxic metals are common contaminants in cheap jewelry. Due to their smaller size and developing nervous system, children are at a higher risk from toxic metals in jewelry. While handheld and benchtop analysis devices including x-ray fluorescence spectrometers can measure the surface metal content of jewelry as a quick scan for problems, such tests are rare in the commercial supply chain and the cost of the equipment is quite high. For safety purposes, jewelry should be purchased from a trustworthy source. Cheap jewelry, in the vast majority of cases, contains high levels of toxic metals and should simply be avoided.      

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