Saturday, July 4, 2015

More cadmium in the Shrek glasses, or in McDonald's fries?

Starting Wednesday, you can return your cadmium-tainted Shrek glasses to any McDonald's for a more-than-full refund. But it's not clear when answers to other questions will be forthcoming, such as how much cadmium exposure is possible, or why a New Jersey company decorated the glasses with cadmium-laced materials.

More cadmium in the Shrek glasses, or in McDonald's fries?

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McDonald's has finally announced procedures for returning the cadmium-tainted Shrek glasses it recalled on Friday after word leaked out prematurely that the recall was in the works.  (You can read about the hurry-up recall here.)

Starting Wednesday, consumers can bring the glasses to any McDonalds and get a $3-per-glass refund. The company says it's paying a premium - the glasses had been sold since last month for $1.99 or $2.49 apiece - to cover the cost of sales taxes, and is not requiring a receipt.  Click here to read about the recall at a McDonald's  website.

You might want to wrap them before taking them to the restaurant, and wash your hands carefully afterward. Although McDonald's and the Consumer Product Safety Commission have both emphasized that the recall was "precautionary," the glasses do pose some risk of exposure to a heavy metal that can have long-term toxic effects, according to Don Mays, senior director of product safety for Consumers Union.

"It can cause renal cancer, so you want to limit your exposure," Mays told me.  Mays also says there is evidence that exposure - at some level - can cause developmental damage.

More coverage

How much risk do the glasses pose?   The answers to that are unclear. Cadmium shows up elsewhere in the environment - it's in foods such as oysters and potatoes, for instance, says Consumers Union toxicologist Urvashi Rangan. But no one is saying how much exposure you'd get, say, from licking your fingers after holding a Shrek glass - or even how that might compare with the cadmium ingested from eating an order of fries. (One point of comparison: Rangan says a whole potato, with skin, contains about 12 parts-per-billion of cadmium. The limit for cadmium in toys is 75 parts-per-million.)

Nor are toxic chemicals likely to be your biggest risk from eating those fries - but that's a subject for another day.

McDonald's likes one statement so much that it repeats it five times on its recall website: "CPSC has said the glassware is not toxic."  The CPSC's recall notice says, "McDonald’s is asking consumers to immediately stop using the glass out of an abundance of caution."

But CPSC is plainly treading a fine line.  Asked for clarification, agency spokesman Alex Filip explained: "It's not toxic exposure. There’s no immediate kind of issue. You don’t pick up a Shrek glass and get sick."

Filip says the amount of cadmium on the glasses is far below the amount in Chinese-made cadmium jewelry that was recalled earlier this year and had been sold at dollar storesClaire's Boutiques,  and Walmart. "When you ingest them, you’re going to ingest toxic levels," Filip says. Adding to that risk is that cadmium, like other heavy metals, "sticks in the body for a long time."

Still, Filip says the Shrek glasses failed a "wipe test": Cadmium came off when the glasses were swabbed, and at levels that Filip says would exceed the threshold that the agency's scientists have tentatively proposed as acceptable. Filip says the agency has been "really, really reluctant" to disclose that level until its work has gone through the peer-review scientific process. "But we have a ballpark number, and this was above that ballpark number."

So, until then, the CPSC's announcement says only that "long term exposure to cadmium can cause adverse health effects." And McDonald's is stressing that its recall of 12 million glasses does not amount to an admission of violating any existing standards:

The CPSC has said that the glassware is not toxic.  In addition, the glassware was evaluated by an independent third-party laboratory, accredited by the CPSC, and determined to be in compliance with all applicable federal and state safety requirements at the time of manufacture and distribution.  This action is being done as a precautionary measure.

A key distinction legally is that the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act of 2008 set that strict limit on cadmium in toys - 75 parts-per-million - "but glasses aren't toys," Mays says. 

Mays and many others continue to ask about the role of ARC International, the French glassware manufacturer that CPSC says made the Shrek glasses at its plant in Millville, N.J., about 50 miles south of Philadelphia.

"Even though they may have been made in New Jersey," Mays says, "the question is: Where did they get their raw materials? Where did they get their paint and dyes?"

So far, ARC officials have not returned phone calls, and McDonald's is saying very little.

"The paint was made in France," McDonald's spokeswoman Ashlee Yingling told me.

Were the glasses painted in Millville?

"That’s a question for ARC," Yingling says. "I don’t know the answer to that."

Inquirer Business Columnist
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About this blog

Jeff Gelles, who writes the Inquirer's weekly Consumer 14.0 and Tech Life columns, takes a broad look at the marketplace of goods, services, and ideas.

Reach Jeff at jgelles@phillynews.com.

Jeff Gelles Inquirer Business Columnist
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