What to Know About Heavy Metal Testing

Before you submit any jewelry item to a lab to test for heavy metals, you’re going to need to do a little homework. Current state and federal laws regulating lead and cadmium levels in jewelry have mounted hurdles that jewelry makers must clear — and some of those laws pertain to both adults’ and children’s products.

It’s important to understand the regulations and your customers’ requirements. If you find that you do need to submit your products for testing, there are a few things you can do to ensure that the testing process goes as smoothly as possible. The more informed you are when entering into a relationship with a lab, the better you can expect your results to be.

The following is a collection of general guidelines for jewelry makers to follow when working with a testing service.

Learn the Laws

To determine if your jewelry products need to be tested by an independent lab, you must first understand the laws.

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Lead

The current federal standards for lead content set by the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act (CPSIA) pertain to jewelry intended for children age 12 and under:

  • Total lead content in children’s jewelry: 100 parts per million (ppm), or 0.01 percent
  • Total lead content in surface coatings and paints: 90 ppm

*It should be noted that state laws currently in California, Minnesota, and Illinois are not pre-empted by the CPSIA.

While precious metals (karat gold, sterling silver, and platinum group metals) and gemstones that haven’t been treated or changed in any way that might result in the addition of lead are exempt, any other children’s jewelry must obtain third-party testing and certification. The tests must be performed by labs accredited by the CPSIA, and any children’s jewelry without certificates of compliance cannot be imported or distributed in the United States.

Cadmium

Currently, three states — Minnesota, Illinois, and California — have their own laws regarding cadmium in children’s jewelry, setting cadmium limits between 75 and 300 ppm, with children defined in a range between 6- and 12-and-under. Also, Maryland’s cadmium law goes into effect this month, and a Connecticut law will be effective in 2014. Several other states have legislation pending. (MJSA members can view a chart of cadmium laws by state in the “MJSA Guide to Cadmium in Jewelry” in the Members’ Only section at mjsa.org.) If working in or selling product in those states, you must abide by the state’s law.

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In 2010, several industry and consumer groups (including MJSA), along with testing labs and representatives of the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), came together to develop a national standard for cadmium content in children’s jewelry. This group developed testing protocols and a 300 ppm total weight screening standard that was approved by the ASTM in 2011. That standard (the “ASTM F2923-11 Specification for Consumer Product Safety for Children’s Jewelry”) is now being reviewed by the CPSC staff, which had until June 16 to assess its adequacy. (Visit mjsa.org for an update on the status of this standard.) If it is determined that the ASTM standard is not adequate, the CPSC could issue alternative and mandatory rules. If the standard is approved, it could become incorporated into federal guidelines and would likely pre-empt conflicting state laws.

Because traces of cadmium exceeding agreed safe limits are occasionally — but very rarely — found in precious metal jewelry, all jewelry — precious and non-precious — is included in the ASTM standard.

“Retail Law”

In addition to learning federal and state laws, you must fully understand the requirements of your retail customers. You may need to tailor your testing process to your customers’ rules. “Even though there is no federal law governing the testing of adult jewelry for lead and cadmium at this time, many major retailers are making it part of their testing protocol, which becomes the law for their organization,” says Paul Perrotti of Toy Testing Lab in Warwick, Rhode Island. Check with your retailers to see if they have set any standards for the products they distribute.

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Understand Testing Procedures

Although an explanation of lab tests used to determine heavy metal content in jewelry can get highly technical, it’s best to have a general understanding of the procedures used. To test for total lead or cadmium content in metal or non-metal jewelry items, labs must use a destructive wet chemistry test that combines acid digestion with Induc-tively Coupled Plasma (ICP) analysis. The ICP method involves converting the sample into a mist form and injecting it into a plasma flame. Any solids in the sample break down into atoms, which are analyzed with a mass spectrometer or optical detector to determine the amount of each element present. That means that the sample you send in for testing will be destroyed, so be sure it’s one you can spare. Since most jewelry products tested are low-value base-metal items, this generally is not a problem.

In March of this year, the CPSC approved the use of HDXRF (high-definition X-ray fluorescence spectroscopy) to test for lead in paint and surface coatings only. More reliable than traditional XRF technology, HDXRF provides the precision of wet chemistry analysis without destroying the sample piece.

Modern Testing Services (MTS) LLC in Brockton, Massachusetts, has invested in HDXRF technology. “The reading is much faster than with traditional wet chemistry, in which you must physically remove the surface coating with a razor and test it,” says Norann Warner of MTS. “But so far it has been approved only for testing lead in surface coatings. In late May, the CPSC issued a proposed notice of rulemaking to allow the use of HDXRF for lead in substrates of metal, plastic, and glass, among other materials. To date it is still out for comment.”

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Know Your Product and Manufacturing Process

Chances are if you manufacture products in your own facility you will understand the materials and the process. But if you aren’t making your own jewelry and subcontracting with companies in the U.S. or overseas, you must make an effort to know the details about your jewelry products. “I am surprised at the level of knowledge of some of the people in charge of having the jewelry tested,” says Jeff Mascoli of Mutual Cornell in Providence. “They don’t know how the pieces are manufactured or what materials they contain. Every little detail our customers can provide about a product makes the testing process go much smoother.”

Perrotti agrees. “It’s amazing what people don’t know about their products,” he adds. Before submitting your jewelry for testing, consider the following:

Know what materials are going into your products

This is where the garbage in, garbage out mentality applies. For the most part, suppliers agree that cast base-metal white-alloy product tends to have the biggest problem with lead and cadmium content. “For example, if you are using a white alloy when manufacturing overseas and are having it plated when producing children’s jewelry, you need to know what the base metals are,” says Perrotti. “Our ICP analysis of these alloys from China returns a wide range of metals, some of which can be problematic. Be sure that your overseas manufacturer understands your requirements for the alloy. Or work with a U.S. metal supplier that you can trust to meet the standards. If you put good, clean raw materials in up front, you should end up with lead- and cadmium-free material in the finished product.”

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Also, because certain materials are exempt from testing, you can automatically check those off the list if they are in your product, avoiding unnecessary testing fees. “Glass, for instance, is exempt when testing adult jewelry, but we might get a beaded bracelet in for testing with no indication what the material is,” says Mascoli. “Sometimes we can crush it and tell if it’s glass because it shatters into a fine powder, but if we are unsure, we test it. If the customer knows up front what materials the beads are made from, they can limit their testing costs.”

Warner advocates setting materials guidelines and clear expectations for your suppliers at the outset — especially when doing business overseas. “Then trust, but verify,” she adds. “You should consider in some cases having the raw materials and components tested before putting a piece into production. This will add to the upfront cost, but we are strong believers in pre-testing. It’s another assurance that your product will be compliant. The worst thing is finding out you have an order ready that you can’t accept because the lead levels are too high. Or worse yet, if that merchandise ends up in the USA and there is a problem with it that results in a recall, you incur significant costs in terms of pulled product, lost sales, and the impact on your reputation.”

Find out how many cooks are in the kitchen

Particularly when manufacturing overseas, know how many suppliers are involved with your product. If you have a piece of jewelry with six components — a chain, jump ring, clasp, and three charms — and the parts come from six different suppliers, they will all need to be tested separately. However, if the three charms come from the same supplier, you can opt for a composite test, which tests the three items together, and save money. “If you can say with confidence that certain components of like materials in a piece come from the same supplier, we can composite them for you, which saves on costs,” says Warner. “It all comes down to your level of knowledge and confidence in your suppliers.”

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Get a basic understanding of the manufacturing process

If you are subcontracting, labs suggest that you visit your supplier in person and watch the manufacturing process in action. “The person in charge of testing should be trained in the manufacturing process,” says Mascoli. “So if we have a question about how a piece was made or assembled, our contact can answer it without hesitation, making the testing process easier.”

Create a bill of materials

Whether it’s in the form of a list or a diagram, a detailed description of the materials in a piece is essential. Name the component parts (jump ring, lobster claw, chain, etc.) and identify what metals or materials are in each. If you can identify how the parts were made (cast, machined, hand fabricated, etc.) and where the solder joints are, that’s even better. The more details, the better.

And that’s the general consensus when it comes to product testing: The more you know about the process and your product, the better the odds that you’ll get the best results, time and again.

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