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.
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:
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).
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.