Federal regulators launched an investigation Monday into lead levels in themed drinking glasses depicting comic book and movie characters, declaring them children's products subject to stricter standards than those intended for adult collectors.
The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission said it was collecting samples of all glasses cited in an ongoing Associated Press investigation into dangerous metals in children's merchandise, generally those containing the more-dangerous toxin cadmium.
The company that imported the Chinese-made glasses depicting the likes of Superman, Wonder Woman and characters from "The Wizard of Oz" such as Dorothy and the Tin Man announced it would voluntarily recall them, despite its insistence that they were marketed to adults.
In all, about 160,000 glasses were recalled by two companies since the AP disclosed Sunday that laboratory tests it commissioned showed that colored designs in a range of glasses contain high levels of lead or were made in such a way that lead or cadmium could escape and contaminate the hands of someone handling them.
The agency said its own inquiry would extend beyond the superhero and Oz glasses to include others cited by AP "that have decorations that children would be attracted to," said spokesman Scott Wolfson.
Federal regulators have worried that toxic metals rubbing onto children's hands can get into their mouths.
The concern is longtime, not immediate. While the superhero and Oz glasses had high levels of lead in their design colors, they did not release enough to hurt anyone. The issue is whether the glasses, made in China and purchased at the Warner Bros. Studios store in Burbank, Calif., comply with federal limits on lead in children's products.
The AP testing revealed that the Oz and superhero glasses contained lead up to 1,000 times the federal limit; the enamel used to color the Tin Man glass was more than 30 percent lead, compared with a federal limit of 0.03 percent. The items also contained lesser but still notable amounts of cadmium.
Soon after Wolfson said Monday that the CPSC considers the glasses children's products, Warner Bros. said it would stop selling them, and the importer, Utah-based Vandor LLC, said it would pull them from the broader market.
If regulators had concluded the glasses were not children's products, they wouldn't be subject to strict lead limits.
Both Vandor and Warner Bros. said in separate statements that their decisions were made in "an abundance of caution." Vandor said the "themed glassware falls within legal limits for lead and cadmium content," and insisted that adult collectors were their intended audience.
Last week, while commenting on AP's test results, Warner Bros. said, "It is generally understood that the primary consumer for these products is an adult, usually a collector."
However, on Warner Brothers' website, the superhero glasses were sold alongside a lunch box and children's T-shirts with superhero images. An online retailer, www.retroplanet.com, described the 10-ounce glasses as "a perfect way to serve cold drinks to your children or guests."
Vandor CEO Tom Russo said his company would "work with the CPSC to develop a recall plan." Details of the recall will be posted on www.vandorproducts.com when available, the company said.
The company said that about 18,000 total four-glass sets have been sold — split almost evenly between the Oz set and the superhero set.
In addition to the Vandor recall, the Coca-Cola Co. voluntarily recalled 88,000 glasses that shed cadmium during separate AP testing that recreated what could escape from decorations during regular handling. The glasses came in sets of four and were designed to look like cans of Coke, Diet Coke, Coke Zero and Sprite.
Coke said late Sunday that the all-red Coke glass prompted the recall "for quality reasons." The company said it saw no problem with the other three designs.
The company said the red glasses had been tested and passed; then, after AP brought its results to Coke, the company did a second round of tests that it said "indicated some cadmium in the decoration on the outside of the glass, (but) the low levels detected do not pose a safety hazard or health threat."
The manufacturer of the Coke glasses, French-owned Arc International, emphasized in a statement attributed to CEO Fred Dohn that the glasses "are safe for their intended use and meet all applicable regulatory standards for cadmium."
The latest AP testing was prompted by a recall this summer by McDonald's of 12 million glasses because cadmium escaped from designs depicting four characters in the latest "Shrek" movie.
Arc International officials said in June that the "Shrek" glasses, made at its New Jersey plant, were manufactured according to standard industry practices, which includes the routine use of cadmium to create red and similar colors.
To gauge how widespread the use of lead and cadmium has been — and whether their use poses potential health hazards — AP bought 13 new glasses, plus 22 old glasses dating from the late 1960s to 2007.
Those glasses were subjected to a battery of tests at ToyTestingLab of Rhode Island, which is accepted by the CPSC as an accredited laboratory for a range of procedures. The tests looked at whether glasses would shed lead or cadmium from their decorations during normal handling, as well as how much of the toxic metals those decorations contain.
AP's testing showed that while the Chinese manufacturer of the superhero and Oz glasses loaded the decorations with lead, very little came out of the decorations during testing. Overall, 25 of the 35 glasses tested safe — their decorations shed very low or no detectable amounts of lead or cadmium.
The other 10 glasses shed small but notable levels of lead, cadmium or, in two cases, both. The concern with these metals in glassware is routine exposure over weeks or months, even if any one dose that goes from a kid's hands to their mouth on food or by licking is small.
Lead has long been known to damage young brains; recent research suggests cadmium can do the same. Cadmium also can harm kidneys and bones, especially if it accumulates over time.
The AP National Investigative Team can be reached at investigate(at)ap.org