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Report round-up: Toxic chemicals in hidden places

Posted by SAFER States on Jan 11, 2012


Recent reports show that toxic chemicals are found in every corner of our lives.


Recent reports show that toxic chemicals are found in every corner of our lives. They are being found in everything from foam in children's products to household cleaners and canned foods. This month, we rounded up some of the most significant studies from our partner organizations. These studies outline the ubiquity of toxic chemicals, and point the way toward solutions.

Fortunately, not all the news is bad. It was discovered that some products don't contain the worst-of-the-worst toxic chemicals, proving that it is possible to create these products with safer alternatives.

And when The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics announced that Johnson & Johnson baby shampoo still contains a harmful, formaldehyde-releasing chemical, the pressure of the news caused Johnson & Johnson to finally agree to remove it. While getting a harmful chemical out of a baby shampoo shouldn't require such action, it is encouraging to see forward motion away from toxic chemicals in some situations.

Washington Toxics Coalition and Safer States
Hidden Hazards in the Nursery (pdf)

Many nursery items contain toxic Tris flame retardants.

Hidden Hazards in the Nursery In a study released today by the Washington Toxics Coalition and SAFER states we learn that many foam products in children's nurseries contain high levels of toxic flame retardants. These chemicals are associated with health concerns such as lower birth weights, changes in thyroid hormone levels which affect critical metabolic functions, and lower IQ in children.

As we discussed on this site in September, the world of chemical flame retardants is an alphabet soup of names and chemical mixtures. As quickly as some chemicals are being banned, the chemical industry is creating new combinations which skirt the rules.

Washington Toxics Coalition in partnership with Safer States purchased foam-containing baby and children's items from major retailers in six states. They sent samples of the foam to a Duke University research laboratory for testing.

The study found:

  • Chlorinated Tris (TDCPP) was present in 16 of 20 products. TDCPP is the chemical that was voluntarily removed from children's pajamas in the 1970s because of health concerns.
  • The level of flame retardants in products was high. The 17 products that contained toxic flame retardants had an average of 3.9% by foam weight.
  • These flame retardants are not chemically bound to the foam, which means that they escape from the products and get into the air and household dust, endangering the health of all in the home.

The real key to banning toxic flame retardants is a comprehensive policy which identifies the worst-of-the-worst chemicals, and sets in place a plan for phase-out in favor of safer alternatives. The states have seen that using the laser-focus of an individual chemical ban hand-in-hand with sweeping comprehensive policy is the most effective way to reduce toxic exposure to adults and little ones alike. Several states will be taking up the charge of toxic flame retardants this year, following in the footsteps of states like New York, which banned TCEP, a toxic Tris flame retardant, in 2011.

Women's Voices for the Earth
Dirty Secrets: What's Hiding in your Cleaning Products?

Hidden toxics in household cleaners underline the need for mandatory disclosure.

Women's Voices for the Earth (WVE) commissioned a laboratory to test 20 popular cleaning products for hidden toxic chemicals from the five top companies: Clorox, Procter & Gamble, Reckitt Benckiser, SC Johnson and Son, and Sunshine Makers (Simple Green). The report was particularly looking for undeclared and hidden toxic chemicals in products like all-purpose cleaners, laundry detergents, dryer sheets, air fresheners, disinfectant sprays and furniture polish.

WVE found:

  • Some of the products tested contained reproductive toxins, carcinogens, and hormone disruptors.
  • Allergens were detected in several products, with the most being found in fragranced air fresheners.
  • Some "fragrance-free" products contained allergens.
  • All toxic chemicals and allergens were undisclosed on the products' labels.

Simple Green, which bills itself as creating "non-toxic, biodegradable and environmentally safer cleaning products" contained several chemicals which cause health issues ranging from allergies to neurodevelopmental problems. One Simple Green product was found to have Bis (2-ethylhexyl) phthalate, which is part of the phthalate family associated with health risks such as lowered testosterone and lowered metabolism, which affect obesity rates. Simple Green had previously pledged to remove phthalates from its products.

WVE's findings underline the need for consistent ingredient disclosure, mandated and standardized on the federal level, so that consumers can make informed decisions about their household cleaning products.

The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics
Baby's Tub is Still Toxic

A report that changed the most famous children's shampoo.

In "Baby's Tub is Still Toxic", The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics—a coalition of women's, public health, labor, environmental health, and consumer's rights organizations—raised concerns about in Johnson & Johnson's use of quaternium-15 in the formula for its baby shampoos in the U.S. and some countries (but not in others). Quaternium-15 is of concern to environmental health advocates because it releases formaldehyde into cosmetics products. Formaldehyde is a carcinogenic chemical that is an extreme irritant to the eyes, nose and throat.

In a victory for the campaign, just as the report was being released Johnson & Johnson publicly stated1 they were phasing out the use of formaldehyde- releasing chemicals from its baby products worldwide. The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics also announced that 322 cosmetics companies have met the goals of the Compact for Safe Cosmetics, the Campaign's voluntary pledge to avoid chemicals banned by health agencies outside the U.S. and to fully disclose product ingredients – a pioneering practice in the cosmetics industry2.

These major successes by The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics prove that companies sometimes respond when consumer outrage is loud enough. But here's the thing: it took scientific analysis, dedicated dollars, and a coalition to identify the chemical in a baby shampoo. Federal disclosure laws should mandate that companies inform parents of any toxic chemicals in products used on their children.

Breast Cancer Fund
BPA in Thanksgiving Canned Food

Another BPA in cans test, same frustrating results.

In November, the Breast Cancer Fund released a report which studied the levels of bisphenol-A (BPA) in cans of food that would typically be used at the Thanksgiving dinner table: cream of mushroom soup, turkey gravy, evaporated milk, creamed corn, canned green beans, canned pumpkin, and cranberry sauce.

The report reinforced previous study results and found harmful amounts of BPA in cans. BPA in cans comes from the epoxy-resin can liner which is used to seal in the food.

The amount of BPA contained in the products which would be combined at a Thanksgiving meal reached levels which have been tied to health effects such as increased risk of breast cancer, reproductive effects, prostrate issues, obesity, and metabolic functions. The levels would be especially harmful to fetuses and infants.

An especially frustrating fact for environmental health advocates is that the levels of BPA varied from state to state and even from can to can across the same product. Del Monte Fresh Cut Sweet Corn, Cream Style had undetectable levels in New York, 4 parts per billion (ppb) of BPA in California, but 221 ppb in Minnesota (the highest result of the test). Moreover, BPA levels were not tied to a predictor such as expiration date. This means that consumers cannot depend on BPA levels to be consistent for a particular product, which makes protecting one's family from BPA all the more difficult without removing canned food from the diet altogether.

A Lot of Work To Do

We at Safer States are often reporting on victories among the states, be it bans on specific chemicals or wide-sweeping policies which encourage safer chemical alternatives. But these reports remind us that we have a long way to go. Until consumer products are safe from toxic chemicals which threaten the health of children and adults alike, our work is not done.

This year, we will continue to push for:

  1. Specific policies which quickly phase out the worst-of-the-worst chemicals. Focus on toxic chemicals like BPA, phthalates and toxic Tris on the state level is the quickest path to getting them out of our lives.
  2. Comprehensive policies on the state level that address the backbone of how we deal with toxic chemicals. States need to set policies into place which dictate how chemical companies manufacture and sell consumer products, and whether those products contain toxic chemicals.
  3. Federal reform of the Toxic Substances Control Act, which is the law that oversees chemical policies on a federal level and is hopelessly out of date.

In our next post, look for specific ways that advocates around the country will be looking to pass policies in 2012 state legislative sessions that better protect citizens from these toxic threats.


1Letter from Susan Nettesheim to Lisa Archer Johnson & Johnson, November 16 2011.
2Market Shift: Hundreds of Cosmetics Companies Fulfill Safe Products Pledge Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, November 30 2011.