Consumers aren’t looking for health problems when they shop at dollar stores or keep older furniture, but a cocktail of chemicals seeping from these items offer exactly that.
From lead and mercury to fire-resistant chemicals, these substances have been generously mixed into the manufacturing process for decades, contributing to a host of illnesses, disorders, and public health issues. And according to small-sample studies from Duke University, University of California-Berkeley, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Black and Latino children are born with, and/or later absorb, twice the level of blood contamination as White children.
Scientists aren’t sure why.
“What we have seen is there’s a higher incidence of learning disabilities with lead, and that’s already been proven,” said José Bravo, executive director of Just Transition Alliance, a labor and environmental activist group. “African Americans and Latinos bear the brunt of the effects of lead. So when you hide it in products in the dollar store…we are concerned, because we know dollar stores target our communities.”
Based in San Diego, Calif., Bravo also serves as the national coordinator for the Campaign for Healthy Solutions, an effort to encourage discount stores to adopt safe products and practices. This year, the group issued a report on dollar store health hazards, in which they tested discount products purchased across California, Kentucky, Maine, New Mexico, Texas, and West Virginia, from the nation’s four largest dollar store chains (Dollar General, Dollar Tree, Family Dollar, and 99 Cents Only).
Of the 164 items tested, 81 percent had at least one toxin at levels above the informal but widely accepted norm. These toxins – which include lead, polyvinyl chloride (also known as PVC plastic, or vinyl), and phthalates – are used to protect the product from wear-and-tear, or maintain its colors or textures over time. But these substances have been linked to immunity and hormonal disorders, infertility, cancer, learning disabilities in children, and more. Further, the toxins can pass from mother to infant via breast milk and the umbilical cord.
Furniture can also be a hazard.
In 1975, California became the first state to require flame retardant chemicals in all furniture sold there. Because the state is such a large market, manufacturers made their entire inventory compliant with the standard. For decades, fire safety compliance included a flame retardant chemical bath for furniture foam, stuffing, and cushions.
The requirement was made optional in 2013. Furniture must now bear tags that say “TB117” – meaning, there are almost certainly flame retardants in the foam – or “TB117-2013” plus an explicit statement confirming or denying the agents.
These agents are known carcinogens and toxins. Today, they can be found in everything from carpets to clothing, cribs and Christmas decorations.
“The goal of the flame retardants is to give you a little bit of extra time [in a fire],” said Eve Gartner, a New York-based staff attorney for nonprofit environmental justice/advocacy organization, Earthjustice. “The California standard…required that the foam part of the furniture could withstand a small open flame for 10 seconds before your chair goes up in flames. But studies showed [the chemicals] don’t really give you that extra time.”
Ironically, flame retardants can make a fire more dangerous.
“We recognize that this is a non-fire issue, but when you do have the fire it becomes a much more risky environment,” said Lloyd Ayers, executive director of the International Association of Professional Black Firefighters. “The added [chemical and lead] content in smoke is dangerous to those firefighters, who have to crawl those long halls to make sure that they can put the fire out and save lives and save property. It’s a double-whammy for us in the fire service.”
Regulations and restrictions for these chemicals have been random and unsystematic. The national standard – the Toxic Substances Control Act – is incomplete in its chemical listing and lacks enforcement power. Some products (such as mattresses) have their own industry fire standards, and a few states have rules on which chemicals are allowed, in which products, and in what amounts. Often though, chemical companies and manufacturers dodge these regulations by substituting lesser-known, equally harmful substances.
During the spring, Earthjustice and a coalition of organizations sent a petition to the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) seeking a ban on all children’s products, furniture, mattresses, and electronics that contain any flame retardant chemically classified as an organohalogen.
Garter explained, “The [Environmental Protection Agency] is charged with regulating the chemicals themselves, but the CPSC has authority over the products. These chemicals migrate out of the product…the toxic gasses attach to house dust, to the air, into the body, they get into water and get washed out to rivers. They don’t serve any real benefit.”
Last winter Bravo’s coalition sent a letter to Dollar General, Dollar Tree, Family Dollar, and 99 Cents Only corporate offices requesting a meeting to discuss these issues. They have not received a response.
“If I talk to people generally, in the street, and I ask them the question, ‘Do you feel you are safe from chemicals?’ a large response would be, yeah, that’s what the government does,” Bravo said. “But the reality’s different. People have to start getting violently sick and dying, and then the government says, ‘oh, we’ll take this off the market, it’s causing deaths.’”
The best way for consumers to protect themselves is to discard and/or replace harmful items. But low-income consumers can rarely afford to do this, or purchase safer items at higher cost.
“We rarely look at the tags, just the aesthetics, and then purchase. But go to the side, or go to the rear, and look at that tag,” Ayers emphasized. “You can also ask the salesperson, where did this come from? Is my family safe? Does this have flame retardants? Be aware of what you purchase.”
Bravo echoes that advice.
“People have to be picky – not everything in the 99 cents store is healthy. Usually, your intuition will tell you,” he said. “If it smells really bad, or plastic, you might not want to purchase that for your family. With jewelry… take a piece of white paper and rub [the jewelry] on the paper. If it leaves a mark, don’t buy it – it probably contains lead.”
He also recommended checking consumer protection agency websites for banned and recalled items, and notifying store managers about the things they stock.
Ayers added that people should contact local, state, and national elected officials to put this issue on their radars. The CPSC is also accepting public comments on the Earthjustice petition through October 19.
“If I could add one thing, it would be to encourage our citizens to become advocates for their safety as well,” he stated. “We don’t know how long it will take to get this out of the environment. It’s here already. So right now, we’re fighting a battle…to turn this around.”