Speakeasy Science

Shrek vs. Cadmium (Cadmium Wins)

This is a story about 13.4 million promotional drinking glasses. Really cute colorful glasses produced for McDonalds in a tie-in for the current hit movie, Shrek Forever After. All of said glasses recalled by said McDonalds (in both the U.S. and Canada) after it turned out that the pigments used to create those images contained the toxic metal cadmium.

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Oops, you might say. Because cadmium has been known as a bad actor for close on 200 years. Almost since it was discovered, in fact. So before we return to the poisoned Shrek glasses, let’s spend a little time on that history – and figuring out why we use cadmium colors at all.

Back in 1817 – a German chemist named Friedrich Stromeyer was messing around, I mean experimenting, with a mineral ore made of zinc, carbon, and oxygen known in the day as calamine and today usually called Smithsonite, after the founder of the Smithsonian Institution.

He discovered that when he heated this zinc carbonate (ZnCO3) it sometimes changed color, glowing an unexpected yellow against its natural greenish background. Stromeyer deduced that the change must be due to an impurity in the ore and eventually isolated a color-shifting metallic element that he named cadmium.

The name derives from the Greek word kadmeia from Cadmean earth, supposedly dating back to an early discovery of the ore near Thebes, the city founded by the Phoenician prince Cadmus of Greek mythology.

Gradually scientists realized that cadmium (Cd) mixed with sulfur produced a clear sunny color that came to be known as cadmium yellow:

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And if the mixture also included the element selenium, the result was a brilliant crimson now widely known as cadmium red. Cadmium red, which became commercially available in the early 20th century, was embraced by innovative artists like Henri Matisse, who used it in his painting The Red Studio (now on exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art in New York).

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Matisse even tried, unsuccessfully, to persuade his friend Claude Renoir to change from the traditional red paint called vermillion to cadmium red. As an aside, vermillion was pretty poisonous, based on an alarmingly mercury-rich mixture. But cadmium red (and yellow and orange) is pretty poisonous as well.

In fact, even 1817, Stromeyer was warning of overexposure to the element. “Cadmium intoxication“, he said, led to surprisingly widespread damage, injuring kidneys, bones and lungs. Research since then has confirmed all those warnings and raised the possibility of cadmium exposures in some cancers as well.

Paint, of course, isn’t the only form of cadmium exposure. It’s notoriously found in in tobacco smoke. It poses a risk to workers assembling nickel-cadmium batteries. It poses a similar risk to workers engaged in cadmium plating of steel parts for the airline industry, a measure taken to protect against corrosion.

But for purposes of this story, we’re interested in the way cadmium is used to infuse paints, enamels, and pigments with the golden yellows and candy-apple reds. After all, it was these pigments, apparently, that were used to color the images of Shrek, Princess Fiona, Donkey, and Puss in Boots from the movie.

The glasses, by the way, were made at the Durand Glass Manufacturing Company of Millbury, N.J., which is a subsidiary of a French company, Arc International. I first leaped to the conclusion they were made in China, thanks to a series of recent recalls of cadmium-tainted children’s jewelry and toys that were manufactured there. Of course, there could still be that connection because so far folks at Durand have refused to say where they got the paint.

When I first read that, at the urging of the Consumer Protection Safety Commission, that McDonalds had begun a voluntary recall of the cadmium-tainted glasses, a question occurred to me: How did they know that the glasses were poisonous? I’d rather hoped that it was a vigilant inspection system either by the government or the companies involved.

It turns out to be rather a matter of vigilant safety advocates and mysterious tipsters.
Jennifer Taggert, a lawyer who writes for TheSmartMama.com reported that she sent the glasses out for tests which revealed discovering cadmium levels ranging from 1020 parts per million (Shrek’s green skin) to 1,946 ppm on a yellow “Fiona Wanted” sign. Taggert contacted the CSPC with her findings after doing some research and finding that the agency standard for soluble cadmium on children’s toys in 75 ppm. So did U.S. Rep. Jackie Speier (D-CA) who received an anonymous tip – don’t you wonder from whom? – that let her to also alert the CSPC.

In the wake of the recall, Spier issued this statement: “Our children’s health should not depend on the consciences of anonymous sources. Although McDonald’s did the right thing by recalling these products, we need stronger testing standards to ensure that all children’s products are proven safe before they hit the shelves.”

Well, yeah.I’m for that. I’m also for the development of better safety standards so we can actually judge the risks of Shrek glasses. But mostly I’m for manufacturers who have the basic intelligence – and decency – not to decorate children’s glasses with an element known to be poisonous for, oh, let’s say, almost 200 years.

End of story.

Comments

  1. #1 Elf Eye
    June 17, 2010

    Oh, don’t worry: unfettered capitalism will take care of this little problem. /libertarianism

  2. #2 cairne.morane
    June 17, 2010

    “…not to decorate children’s glasses with an element known to be poisonous…”

    or in fact any eating or drinking utensil of any kind used by anybody anywhere.

  3. #3 cairne.morane
    June 17, 2010

    PS

    Though if I did actually have one of these glasses I would it away in a nice safe place.

  4. #4 Phillip IV
    June 17, 2010

    Oh come on – it’s McDonald’s. Poisoning kids is their business. Usually, they do it via the food itself, instead of the containers, but they probably just wanted to try something new.

  5. #5 daedalus2u
    June 17, 2010

    75 ppm soluble cadmium is acceptible in children’s toys?

    The limit for hazardous waste is 20 ppm. Anything that contain more than 20 ppm soluble or extractable cadmium is defined to be a hazardous waste.

    http://www.epa.gov/epawaste/hazard/wastetypes/wasteid/char/hw-char.pdf

  6. #6 Deborah Blum
    June 17, 2010

    Pretty incredible, isn’t it?

    There’s a listing here for CPSC limits on a number of toxic metals in used paints and coatings.

    http://www.rsjtechnical.com/WhatisCPSIA.htm

    Cadmium is at 75 ppm. But antimony is at 60 ppm and that’s nothing that I’d want to see on a child’s toy.

  7. #7 Deborah Blum
    June 17, 2010

    Pretty incredible, isn’t it?

    There’s a listing here for CPSC limits on a number of toxic metals in paints and coatings. Yes, cadmium is at 75 ppm. You’ll notice that lead in paint is at 90 ppm. But that only happened in about the last year. Previously it was 600 ppm.

  8. #8 Nancy Reyes
    June 17, 2010

    “… I’m for manufacturers who have the basic intelligence – and decency – not to decorate children’s glasses with an element known to be poisonous for, oh, let’s say, almost 200 years…”

    you and your commenters are assuming these glasses came from honest capitalists. The real scandal is that they were made in China, where these crooked manufacturers were caught using lead, now have switched to cadmium.

    This is not accidental: Previous scandals with milk and medicine showed that these cheaper substitutions are often chosen so they can’t be detected by routine quality control measures.

    And here in the Philippines, I shudder, because we often get the items refused or rejected by the west…even if “illegal” here, a simple bribe or smuggling can get around the law.

  9. #9 Tony P
    June 17, 2010

    Let us also not forget that Western Electric plated a hell of a lot of metal with cadmium. It’s why the bottoms of some of their phones has a yellowish tinge to it.

    They did it for the anti-corrosion properties.

    http://farm5.static.flickr.com/4021/4710959536_61c52e1ee7_b.jpg

  10. #10 Lynxreign
    June 18, 2010

    Thanks for the article! I especially enjoyed the background on Cadmium and its use in pigments; the images were great.

    I wonder how much these glasses will be going for on the collector’s market in a few years.

  11. #11 Lynxreign
    June 18, 2010

    Nancy Reyes @10

    you and your commenters are assuming these glasses came from honest capitalists. The real scandal is that they were made in China, where these crooked manufacturers were caught using lead, now have switched to cadmium.

    They weren’t made in China, they were made in New Jersey by a subsidiary of a French company, as it clearly states in the article. It may have been something the company didn’t know. It may have been something they didn’t consider. It may have been done intentionally, thinking no-one would find out. We have no idea at this moment.

    Your mistake is thinking all American (and French) capitalists are honest. Or that “honest capitalists” wouldn’t do something like this to make money. China hardly has a monopoly on bad corporate practices.

    This is a good example of why we need good regulations and a well funded regulatory agency for just about every sector of the economy. More government regulation = better and more efficient capitalism.

  12. #12 brook
    June 18, 2010

    How would the paint on the glasses be toxic? (I know about its toxicity in general – an artist friend wears gloves when she’s working in oils and we do a fair amount of heavy metal testing for a local battery manufacturer) Is it water soluble? Some reaction to heat in dishwashers? Contact from grubby fingers clutching Fiona tightly?

    Not advocating for shoddy regulation, or poisoning children just curious.

  13. #13 Adam_Y
    June 18, 2010

    Pretty incredible, isn’t it?

    No. I’ve always found the “but its classified as hazardous waste” is not a good argument primarily because if something is classified as hazardous waste it doesn’t mean its always dangerous. Pure nickel, pure silver, and pure platinum are all classified as hazardous wastes in my lab.

    How would the paint on the glasses be toxic? (I know about its toxicity in general – an artist friend wears gloves when she’s working in oils and we do a fair amount of heavy metal testing for a local battery manufacturer) Is it water soluble?

    The same reason why lead paint was a dumb idea. It chips off and kids eat it.

  14. #14 Deborah Blum
    June 18, 2010

    Well, remember that kids drinking out of glasses don’t wear gloves or use barrier creams the way some artists do. Or any protective gear for that matter.

    Of course, these decorations are on the outside of the glass so they wouldn’t leach into drinks. And to be fair, they’re also below the so-called “lip and rim” area, meaning that you wouldn’t be sucking on them as you drank.

    The question is as children (or even adults) handle these glasses, do they create wear on the material and transfer some of it to their hands. Do their hands touch their mouths? Probably, yes, if they’re eating some of those McDonald’s french fries at the time. Another concern is that these glasses might go into dishwashers, where heat, water spray and grit might cause the decorations to further deteriorate.

    As so far the company hasn’t made public any information about the paints used in this process, it’s difficult to know too much about whether this is soluble, whether one worries about flaking, and how to quantify the risk.

    So this recall was all about erring on the side of caution. On the other hand, as I said earlier, it’s probably good policy to not use cadmium paints on objects that a) are used during meals and b) are handled by children.

  15. #15 Deborah Blum
    June 19, 2010

    Wow. Didn’t know that about GE phones. Thanks!