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On Relief and Risks: Cadmium v. Earthquakes

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The pictures from Haiti make clear that the devastation there is immense.

The New York Times’ The Lede blog has regular updates on conditions in the country.

World Vision is already delivering relief to the island nation.

The Salvation Army has been a force for good in the impoverished country for years, and is also accepting donations for immediate earthquake relief via their website or via phone at 1-800-SAL-ARMY. The press release on damage done to the Army’s operations by the earthquake is here.

Some day a similar-size or even much larger earthquake will hit the United States, and we will regret all the years in which warnings went by unnoticed or even undelivered.

Which brings me to cadmium.

In this Dec. 17, 2009 photo, Jeff Weidenhamer, professor of chemistry at Ashland University, holds a "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer", charm in Ashland, Ohio. Barred from using lead in children's jewelry because of its toxicity, some Chinese manufacturers have been substituting the more dangerous heavy metal cadmium in sparkling charm bracelets and shiny pendants being sold throughout the United States, an Associated Press investigation shows. (AP Photo/Tony Dejak)

Claire’s has joined Wal-Mart in pulling children’s jewelry from its shelves for fear of the content level of cadmium in the products.

New York’s Charles Schumer immediately called for a legislative ban on cadmium in products, and the Consumer Products Safety Commission is investigating.

Cadmium is indeed a nasty substance, a known carcinogen, and taking steps to limit exposure to it makes sense.

But the sudden rush to recall, regulate and ban is just the latest example of the increasing inability of the public to judge relative levels of risk because of a political system that allies with needy media to turn everything into panic.

I have covered the Consumer Products Safety Improvement Act fiasco extensively here and on my radio show. My law partners Gary Wolensky and Liz McNulty have spent a great deal of time in the last 18 months advising companies on how to comply with its onerous requirements of the CPSIA which have actually forced the bankruptcy of many small companies and the loss of hundreds of millions of dollars and thousands of jobs. Gary and Liz are no doubt right now at the office trying to figure out how to keep their clients out of cadmium-related trouble. The expense of compliance with all these rules is immense.

What do you think is the net benefit to safety?

If even a fraction of the cost of compliance with CPSIA and the soon-to-arrive cadmium law and rules was spent on earthquake preparedness in any of our high risk zones, which is the better expenditure?

That question won’t get asked by camera-hungry politicians looking for a hearing subject that will get them some press. So look for the Congress to take up a cadmium exposure protection statute even as we watch the unfolding horror in Haiti. It isn’t rational to overprotect against cadmium and underprotect against the inevitable massive quake in California.

But that’s what we are going to do.


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