WASHINGTON—A federal consumer agency is re-testing dollar store products in response to a recent report asserting that certain items contained chemicals exceeding legal limits. The testing and report draw attention to the fact that humans are exposed to toxins on a daily basis, but the effects of many of them are unknown.
Most toxic chemicals are only considered poisonous to humans at a certain threshold. This threshold varies for each of thousands of chemicals individuals encounter in air, water and consumer products every day. And science is constantly seeking new tests and information on the tolerance the human body has for different substances.
“Currently we operate under this paradigm where we assume there is a safe threshold for these chemicals,” said Dr. Nicole Deziel, a professor of epidemiology at the Yale School of Public Health.
The report, entitled “A Day Late and a Dollar Short,” sought to test the levels of certain chemicals to see if they met the current “acceptable” thresholds, in children’s items in particular.
Products from the four largest dollar store chains in the U.S.—Dollar General, Dollar Tree, 99 Cents and Family Dollar—were tested for the report, which was released by a coalition of health and environmental justice.
Out of the 164 products tested, 81 percent were found to contain hazardous chemicals above acceptable levels for children.
Dollar General and Family Dollar have since released statements that they comply with federal regulations for toxic chemicals.
While the report’s findings are likely not cause for widespread alarm, they raise a serious question about the long-term effects of certain chemicals, and the extent to which their negative impact on human development is unknown.
Protecting the consumer
The Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) said that the report, issued by the Campaign for Healthier Solutions, did not use testing methods necessarily consistent with federal procedures. So the agency is re-testing the dollar store products to compare results.
In reality, some of the chemicals that people encounter on a daily basis have not been fully examined for toxicity.
The Environmental Protection Agency is responsible for regulating chemicals used in almost all types of commercial products. The Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) of 1976 set testing requirements and regulations on toxic chemicals.
If a manufacturer or importer plans to use a newly developed chemical, the company must give the EPA 90 days notice so the government can evaluate the chemical prior to manufacturing.
That said, the 60,000 chemicals in commercial use at the time that TSCA was enacted were not required by law for testing, said Cathy Milbourn of the EPA. “Most of the existing chemicals in commerce have never been fully assessed for safety,” Milbourn, an agency press officer, explained via e-mail.
She said the EPA has looked to Congress to strengthen TSCA and improve laws surrounding chemical testing.
“The public has the right to expect that the chemicals manufactured, imported, and used in this country are safe,” she said. “EPA needs a more effective law that gives us the tools necessary to provide the public with this assurance.”
Deziel of the Yale School of Public Health, who researches environmental exposure and the connection to human disease, said TSCA is outdated in its regulation of chemicals and sets unrealistic standards for EPA testing..
“Under this law, the burden of proof is very high to show that a chemical is harmful before any regulatory action is taken,” she said.
Product regulations and unknowns
Overexposure to certain chemicals examined in the report, including lead, phthalates, and polyvinyl chloride (PVC), are among a host of toxic chemicals believed to pose serious long-term health risks.
For example, phthalates are commonly found in plastics and in personal care products such as shampoo and makeup. The report found high levels of phthalates in dollar store headbands, silly straws and bathtub accessories.
Scott Wolfson of the CPSC said that some of the items tested are not children’s products under the commission’s definition, which lowers the bar for regulation of certain chemicals.
“We had an outside panel of experts from around the world do an additional research project that went on for more than two years into phthalates,” Wolfsonsaid. “They did not recommend that CPSC expand those bans [on phathlates] to all childrens’ products.”
It is not known to what extent phthalates are toxic, but the U.S. National Library of Medicine says they are believed to be “endocrine disruptors.” Eendocrine disruptors are a class of chemicals that are proven or believed to disturb human hormone production.
These kinds of disruptors, which also include mercury, lead and pesticides, can have a negative impact on the reproductive systems of both men and women, and pose a threat to fetal and infant development.
Deziel explained that children in particular are vulnerable to toxins such as pesticides because they are exposed to much higher levels of chemicals as a percentage of their body weight. And kidsengage in activities, likecrawling, that expose them to particles in ways that are different than adults.
Impact on human development
Research about potential toxic chemicals and their impact on human development is constantly evolving.
Last year, Dr. Philippe Grandjean of the Harvard School of Public Health and Dr. Philip Landrigan of Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City released a study outlining the potential hazardous effects of certain chemicals on brain development. The study included lead and arsenic among 11 “neurotoxicants” that Grandjean and Landrigan believe negatively impact neurological development and function.
“Strong evidence exists that industrial chemicals widely disseminated in the environment are important contributors to what we have called the global, silent pandemic of neurodevelopmental toxicity,” Grandjean and Landrigran wrote in their report.
The two experts believe that neurodevelopmental toxicity contributes to the increasing prevalence of disabilities like ADHD, dyslexia and autism.
A number of organizations and scientists are doing similar research on neurotoxins and development.
Autism Speaks, an advocacy and research organization that focuses on autism spectrum disorders, studies the environmental factors that contribute to the condition. Director of Public Health Research Michael Rosanoff said the group is confident that the increase in autism cases can be attributed in part “to environmental risk factors that have yet to be identified.”
“We’re not at a point where we can say any one factor or group of factors cause autism in any case,” Rosanoff said in a phone interview.
Deziel said part of the challenge of understanding chemicals and their toxicity is the amount of research required. “Normally, there’s experiments done in cells or in animals and also human studies to try to figure out where that threshold is,” she said. “So it requires a lot of research to figure that out.”
She added that research often only considers the negative impact of one substance at a time. “We have no idea what the combined, cumulative effect is of these multiple exposures.”
Deziel said that continued research is important to fully understanding the negative impacts of the dozens of chemicals humans are exposed to on a daily basis.