Toxic chemicals found in majority of holiday decorations
A new study tested seasonal products from retailers Walmart, Target and CVS. Two-thirds contained substances linked to cancer, learning disabilities and other health problems.
A range of seasonal holiday products containing high levels of toxic chemicals are being sold by top retailers, including Walmart, Target, Walgreens, Kroger, Lowe’s, CVS and Dollar Tree, according to a new study.
Researchers for the environmental non-profit The Ecology Center tested 69 seasonal holiday products and found that two-thirds contained one or more hazardous chemicals that have been linked to serious health problems.
Purchased at seven retail stores in southeast Michigan, researchers tested beaded and tinsel garlands, artificial wreaths and greenery, stockings, figurines and other tabletop decorations, and gift bags. The study identified lead, flame retardants, tin compounds and phthalates, among other hazardous substances. These have been variously linked to asthma, birth defects, learning disabilities, reproductive problems, liver toxicity and cancer.
Beaded garlands were found to contain a “multitude of toxic contaminants”, while light strings consistently showed high levels of lead and bromine. Of the products tested, 13% contained lead above 100 parts per million (ppm). Twelve percent contained more than 800 ppm of bromine, indicating the presence of brominated flame retardants, which the Environmental Protection Agency has linked to developmental and reproductive issues.
According to the study’s researchers, home decorations are largely unregulated and may legally contain lead or phthalates, for example, in quantities prohibited in children’s products by the Consumer Product Safety Commission. As long as a product is not labeled as being intended for children, it is not subject to lead, cadmium or phthalate restrictions.
Mike Schade of Safer Chemicals, a coalition representing more than 450 organizations, including The Ecology Center, says that some of these substances, such as halogenated flame retardants and phthalates, are dangerous even at low levels.
“Scientists that study these chemicals are telling us that even smaller exposures are of concern for hormone-disrupting chemicals such as these,” Schade says. “Evidence continues to pile up that shows even babies are affected by exposure to these chemicals in the womb.”
The results of this latest study underscore the need for big retailers to work with their suppliers to eliminate toxic chemicals in their supply chain, Schade says. “While some major retailers like Walmart and Target have begun to adopt more comprehensive chemical policies, others like Kroger and Walgreens are unfortunately lagging behind,” he says.
In September, Walmart and Target came together in a closed-door summit on chemical safety in their products.
Target, Walmart, Kroger and Dollar Tree did not respond to request for comment before press time. Walmart issued a brief statement to say that all its products adhere to governmental regulations: “Standard testing procedures are in place for our products to help assure compliance with regulatory requirements and give customers trust in the quality, and safety of items we offer them.”
Schade maintains that retailers could be doing more than meeting the government’s minimum standards. He would like to see retailers adding lead, halogenated flame retardants, and PVC plastic to the company’s restricted substance list as part of a larger corporate chemical policy.
“To start, a retailer can ask suppliers to disclose whether or not certain products contain chemicals such as these, or classes of chemicals such as carcinogens, mutagens and reproductive toxicants,” he says.
The tools to help companies opt out of known toxic chemicals already exist. The Clean Production Action, an organization that develops guidelines for environmentally sound products, recently launched the Chemical Footprint Project, which evaluates businesses’ chemical safety. The organization says this can help a retailer or brand identify and avoid financial, legal and regulatory liabilities associated with toxic chemicals in its supply chain.
Offering further motivation, the United Nations released a report this week that identifies the business risks companies face for failing to proactively manage chemicals.
Over a three-year period, Walmart, Target, Walgreen, CVS Pharmacy and Costco Warehouse paid a total of US $138m in fines because of chemicals of concern found in its products, according to the press release about the report (pdf). (Costco says these chemicals aren’t hazardous to consumers; it was fined for mismanaging how it handled the products after they were used.)
Schade says that a major obstacle to safer products is “outdated toxic chemicals laws” in the US.
“The sad truth is that our chemical safety system is fundamentally broken,” Schade says. “In the absence of [government] reform, we’ll continue to call on the biggest retailers to adopt comprehensive programs to eliminate harmful chemicals in products.”
This article was updated 5 January 2015 to clarify that description of fines came from a press release related to a UN report, not the report itself, and to add a comment from Costco Wholesale Corp.