Thousands of products for children from toys to clothes, from ointments to booster seats, contain “chemicals of high concern.” So says an analysis of information provided by 59 large companies, including Gap Inc., Mattel Inc., Gymboree Corp., Nike Inc., H&M and Wal-Mart Stores Inc., which definitely should give any parent, and any of us, pause about just what is in many items available at your local drugstore.
An Online Database of the Chemicals in Kid’s Products
Since September of last year, companies reporting more than $1 billion in gross annual revenues have been required to report chemicals in any products that “could be put into the mouth by children under 3 years old, and those intended to be put in the mouth or rubbed on the skin for children under 12 years old.” As of last February, companies have also been required to list products that are “intended for prolonged contact with the skin, including clothing, jewelry and bedding.” Smaller companies must start reporting about their products by this upcoming August.
Companies must submit reports to an online database if their products contain any of 66 chemicals that were selected because they have been connected to “cancer or to reproductive, developmental or neurological effects” in animals or humans. Specific products cannot be searched for, but consumers can still look up specific chemicals and see what categories of products they occur in.
“Chemicals of High Concern” with Uncertain Effects Found
EWN’s inspection of the database revealed that many common products contain these “chemicals of high concern.”
Cobalt, which is used in blue dyes and other pigments, was found in 1,228 individual products in 40 different categories — plastic Lego blocks, Gap baby-feeding bibs, New Balance footwear. No studies have yet been done on the effects of exposure to cobalt from consumer products, but workplace exposure to it has been linked to metal workers developing bronchial asthma and lung disease, including cancer.
Ethylene glycol, an industrial solvent used in polyester and plastic water bottles and also in antifreeze, was found in more than 1,000 products, including baby feed bibs from Gymboree and Little Tikes toys and games. So far, it is not yet known if exposure to ethylene glycol from consumer products carries health risks. But, according to the National Toxicology Program, high enough oral exposure to this substance could possibly harm human development.
The metals antimony and molybdenum, which are used to make yellow, red and other pigments, were found in nearly 800 products, including dolls and building blocks.
It is certainly alarming to learn that so many products meant for children contain such chemicals. Toy and other manufacturers assert that a just because a chemical with potentially harmful effects is found in a product does not necessarily mean that it is “harmful to human health or that any safety standard is being violated.”
The 250 member Juvenile Product Manufacturing Association also points out that “reporting mere content without risk for the sake of reporting is not productive, and there remains much confusion about such reporting.” Consumers, say the companies, could be unduly alarmed at learning that children’s toys, clothes and personal care products contain so many chemicals.
We Once Thought Lead in Paint Was Okay
Children — especially babies and toddlers — are more likely to put products into their mouths. As their nervous and reproductive systems are still developing, they face risks from exposure in even minute amounts.
In addition, lead and PCBs were once used widely in paint and gasoline until research revealed that, even in small amounts, they were harmful. As John Meeker, an associate professor of environmental health sciences at the University of Michigan School of Public Health, emphasizes:
“Over the years it’s been demonstrated that some of these chemicals are making their way into the bodies of children. We don’t want to wait too long to find out if they cause disease later in life…. It makes you wonder what chemical we’ll be looking at in the future and asking how it could have been so widely used.”
With this in mind, a number of other states (including New York, Oregon, Connecticut, Vermont, Maine and Minnesota) are considering legislation similar to Washington’s Children’s Safe Products Act.
As EWN points out, after Washington’s law went into effect, Rite Aid, Wal-Mart and other companies said they planned to phase out the use of parabens in products. Gap also said it would phase out the use of phthalate DINP, which has been included in clothing.
These changes are encouraging and attest to how we can make our world safer by urging manufacturers to change their established ways. They also offer a powerful reminder to parents that, in some cases, the colorful, easy-to-wipe-clean products — high chairs, changing mats — that have become staples of raising a child in the 21at century have such bright hues and are so durable because of chemicals with uncertain effects on kids’ young bodies. Plastics may well not always be the best when it comes to toys (there are wooden alternatives), bibs and furniture.
Alex Stone, a chemist in the Washington Department of Ecology who helped to write the regulations for Washington’s law, points out, ”simply the presence of a chemical in a product does not really say it’s causing harm to anyone.” While investigations continue about how harmful, or not, all these “chemicals of high concern” are on the human body, the very existence of the database is already having the effect of requiring manufacturers to be open and transparent — and we need to ensure this continues.
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