Health and environmental groups launched a national campaign Thursday to prod 10 major retailers - including Walmart, Target and Costco - to clear store shelves of products containing hazardous chemicals.
Advocates say these companies have done some "retail regulation" but argue more needs to be done and the U.S. government isn't stepping up. They list 100-plus chemicals used in hundreds, possibly thousands, of products including wrinkle-free clothes, vinyl flooring, shampoos, sofa cushions and food packaging.
"We've seen the power of retailers to change the marketplace," says Andy Igrejas of Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families, a coalition advocating against toxic chemical use. He notes that many stores pre-empted a 2012 federal biphenol-A (BPA) ban by no longer selling baby products containing the hormone-disrupting chemical. "But the bites so far are too small for the scale of the problem," he says.
His group and nearly four dozen others, including the Breast Cancer Fund and the Union of Concerned Scientists, are sending a letter Wednesday to 10 retailers asking them to develop a plan within a year to phase out use of the chemicals. The companies include Kroger, Walgreens, Home Depot, CVS Caremark, Lowe's, Best Buy and Safeway.
Some have already acted. In 2007, Target and the parent company of Sears and Kmart announced plans to join Walmart in phasing out polyvinyl chloride (PVC) from products. In 2011, Walmart said it would stop using a controversial flame retardant. Kroger, which phased BPA out of cash register receipts in 2011, said in 2012 that its Simple Truth products would be free of 101 chemicals and ingredients. Lowe's and Home Depot have stopped selling driveway sealants that contain coal tar, which has suspected carcinogenic chemicals.
As of Tuesday evening, the 10 retailers said they had not seen the campaign's letter. Walmart, Target and Kroger, asked to comment on their prior efforts and the challenges in expanding them, declined interview requests.
"Our companies go to great lengths to help Americans make informed decisions about which products are best for their families," says Anne Kolton of the American Chemistry Council, which represents manufacturers of plastic and other chemicals. She says the group does its own "extensive" chemical testing and provides that information to retailers and suppliers. She says six federal agencies oversee chemical safety via more than a dozen federal laws.
Igrejas says the federal government, unlike some states, is doing little. "It's the Wild West," he says, adding the Toxic Control Substances Act hasn't had a major update since its passage in 1976. He says many chemicals used in consumer products aren't federally tested or required to submit safety data.
"The federal government isn't minding the store, so the stores need to mind the store," Igrejas says. He's calling on retailers to identify and stop selling products that contain chemicals whose exposure has been linked to health problems, including cancer, infertility, learning disabilities and behavioral problems. The 100-plus chemicals include formaldehyde, parabens, phthalates, BPA and flame retardants.
"The devil is in the details," says Joe Schwarcz, director of Montreal-based McGill University's Office for Science and Society. He says a chemical's toxicity depends largely on its concentration, not simply its presence in a product. He says many chemicals can be toxic at high enough levels.
Also, retailers and their suppliers don't necessarily know every chemical in their products, says Anne Steinemann, an environmental engineering professor at the University of Washington, Seattle. She's tested dozens of scented products and has found that fewer than 1% disclose all ingredients on the label or anywhere else. Even if an item lists "fragrance," she says it doesn't have to list each of the fragrance's myriad chemicals.
Steinemann says some manufacturers get around black-listed chemicals with substitutes that could be worse. For cleaning products, she recommends consumers stick to baking soda, hydrogen peroxide and vinegar, adding: "Use what our grandparents used - simple products."