Tenenbaum said in an interview that inspectors didn't check store shelves earlier because agency scientists had not decided what cadmium levels would qualify a piece of jewelry as hazardous. And they haven't checked more since 2011 due to other priorities, particularly items that children have died using, such as faulty cribs and ATVs.
Before 2010, the consumer agency ignored scattered reports of cadmium-contaminated jewelry. Emails obtained under FOIA show an agency working in the days immediately following AP's initial report to turn revelations about past indifference into a success story. But a reconstruction of the ensuing events suggests an agency that started out strong soon began to back off.
Just six months in office in early 2010, Tenenbaum found in cadmium an opportunity to contrast herself with her predecessor, who was cast as weak and ineffective during the 2007-08 Chinese product scares.
"These are a priority for the Chairman, so they are to be given priority," a senior official in CPSC's compliance division emailed testing lab colleagues about samples of bracelet charms on Jan. 14, 2010.
Two weeks later, the agency announced the first-ever cadmium-related recall â¿¿ 55,000 "The Princess and The Frog" movie-themed pendants sold at Walmarts.
Almost immediately, Tenenbaum was shaping the narrative the agency would tell and retell â¿¿ that fast action allowed it to "get ahead" of the cadmium problem.
By early 2011, the CPSC had finally done a national "children's jewelry sweep" to gauge what was on store shelves. That February, CPSC chemists reported a troubling analysis of three jewelry samples bought by agency inspectors. Testing showed that hazardous amounts of cadmium would dissolve into the stomach acid of a child who swallowed the jewelry.
Over the next few weeks, three more items failed the test, including the baby bracelet.
While the number of jewelry pieces with hazardous readings was not great â¿¿ 711 samples were screened â¿¿ some of the six items had even more alarming cadmium readings than jewelry that had been recalled. One was 27 times higher than the agency's acceptable limit.