© 2024 WEMU
Serving Ypsilanti, Ann Arbor and Washtenaw County, MI
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Issues Of The Environment: Dangers Of Holiday Shopping At Dollar Store-Type Franchises


  It's certainly fun to put up holiday decorations and buy those trinkets and gifts for loved ones. Unfortunately, depending on where you shop, you may be putting at risk the health of all of them. In this week's 'Issues of the Environment,' David Fair talks with Ecology Center Staff Scientist Gillian Miller about those dangers and what we can do to continue improving our product choices.


Earlier this year, healthystuff.org, an arm of the Ann Arbor-based Ecology Center, tested products from leading “dollar” store chains. The study found 81% of the products (133 out of 164) contained at least one hazardous chemical at levels higher than recommended by the Consumer Product Safety Commission. 49% of products contained two or more. Those chemicals have known (and unknown) carcinogenic, reproductive, and developmental effects.

These stores target customers in poorer communities who may not have the means to shop elsewhere, putting families at risk of receiving toxic toys, decorations, household items, and gifts during the holidays.

Gillian Miller is a Staff Scientist for the Ecology Center. She says more legislative regulation is required to force stores to stop selling toxic products, as many "fall into gaps in the federal Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976.”

Resource Information:

Dollar Store Products for Test Positive for Toxins

In conjunction with the Campaign for Healthier Solutions, HealthyStuff.org tested 164 products purchased at four major discount retailers-Dollar General, Dollar Tree, Family Dollar, and 99 Cents Only-in six U.S. states. Products were tested for antimony, arsenic, bromine, chlorine, lead, mercury, and tin. A subset of products determined to contain polyvinyl chloride plastic (PVC or vinyl) were further tested for the presence of phthalate and non-phthalate plasticizers.

A few products contained excessive lead, including one containing over 6,000 ppm lead. Overall, we continue to see fewer products on the market containing lead and cadmium, which are two potent neurotoxins. Both of these chemicals have been considerable regulatory by the US Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC).  However, the study also revealed that vinyl plastic and toxic phthalates continue to be in widespread use in discount store products.  

*   81% of the products (133 out of 164) contained at least one hazardous chemical above levels of concern, and 49% of products contained two or more.

*   38% of the products tested (63 out of 164) contained vinyl plastic.

*   Of the vinyl products, 38 were tested for plasticizers. 32% (12 out of 38) of these contained toxic phthalates above the CPSC limits for children's products.

*   Three products contained a phthalate (DiBP) not regulated by CPSC but found to be toxic by the CPSC. One product contained another unregulated phthalate (DDP), for which data are lacking on carcinogenic, reproductive, and developmental effects.

Health Impacts of Toxins Found

Antimony is used as a flame retardant in products as diverse as toys, car seat covers, engine covers for light aircraft, clothing for kids, used to produce glass and ceramics, to make pigments, and in batteries. symptoms like depression, dizziness, headaches, vomiting, kidney damage, or liver damage. One compound—antimony trioxide—is even believed to be carcinogenic. 

Lead is found in a wide variety of electronic components including the circuit boards, batteries and as a stabilizer in PVC products. Lead exposure can cause damage to the reproductive, blood and nervous systems.

Mercury is used in some batteries, crystal displays and circuit boards. A single cell phone contains up to 2 grams of mercury.  Mercury exposure contributes to brain and kidney damage.

Arsenic is found in the microchips of many electronic devices.  In high doses, arsenic poisoning is lethal. Low levels of exposure cause negative impacts on skin, liver, nervous and respiratory systems.

Cadmium is a cheap alternative to lead to strengthen metal alloys, can be found in some toys, and in cheap jewlery.  It is associated with deficits in cognition, learning, behavior and neuromotor skills in children.  It has also been linked to kidney damage. 

Chlorine is a component of plastics, specifically polyvinyl chloride (PVC) Exposure to improperly disposed ­­­­chlorine causes tissue damage and the destruction of cell structure.

Bromine is a component in a group of fire retardant chemicals known as brominated flame retardants.  It is associated with cognitive and developmental deficits.  Studies have shown that bromine contributes to the disruption in the thyroid hormone balance, brain damage, and cancer. 

Tin is used in solder and combined with other metals in toys and household items.  Side effects include possible tumors, fertility effects, and kidney damage.

Polyvinyl Chloride Plastic (PVC or vinyl): PVC is hazardous from production to disposal and that’s why we call it the poison plastic. There’s no safe way to manufacture, use or dispose of PVC products. PVC’s lifecycle uses and releases highly hazardous chemicals including dioxins and furans, vinyl chloride, ethylene dichloride, phthalates, mercury and other chemicals.
        *   One PVC shower curtain can release as many as 108 volatile organic                chemicals into the air. Some of these chemicals can cause                                  developmental damage as well as damage to the liver and central                    nervous, respiratory, and reproductive systems. (CHEJ)

        *   The phthalate DEHP is often added to PVC to make it flexible. Traces              of these chemicals can leach out of PVC when in contact with foods                or if your baby mouths them.

        *   According to the National Institutes of Health, di-2-ethylhexyl                           phthalate (DEHP), is a suspected human carcinogen.  
        *   Lead is used as a stabilizer in PVC and while it’s somewhat regulated              in products made in the U.S., imported PVC products can have                         disturbingly high lead levels. 

Phthalates - ubiquitous in cheap plastic toys and children's dinnerware. Studies have demonstrated links between DINP and cancer, adverse impacts on the reproductive system, kidneys, liver and blood.  Certainly, phthalate-free toys are a step in the right direction.  But even PVC toys that are phthalate-free may potentially contain other potentially harmful chemical additives.  For example, lead has been found in a number of PVC children’s toys and back-to-school products such as lunch boxes. Many companies have substituted lead for other “stabilizers” such as organotins which may be harmful over time. 

What Not to Buy

1. Electronic Accessories - Extension cords, USB charging cords and cell phone charger cables from dollar stores tested high in chlorine, a sign that the items were made with PVC.

2. Plastic Kitchen Utensils - Those black slotted spoons and spatulas may contain high levels of bromine, a component in brominated flame retardants, or BFRs. Though these are added to make the products resistant to fire, they’ve been linked to cancer, birth defects and impaired brain development, and have been banned or phased out in the U.S. So what are they doing in kitchen utensils? Suppliers are likely substituting cheap, hazardous recycled content–probably from old electronics–for virgin plastic.

3. Flannel-Backed Table Covers - high levels of lead, a neurotoxic metal that is especially harmful to fetuses and children.  It can reduce IQ and cause behavioral problems.  Vinyl tablecloths aren’t a good alternative, because they’re made with cancer-causing vinyl chloride.

4. Christmas Garland - Saving on once-a-year items makes good financial sense, but these have tested high in bromine, indicating that some are made with recycled plastics containing BFRs.  These can seep into household dust, possibly causing thyroid problems, memory impairment and other health issues.

5. Silly Straws - These have tested high for levels of DEHP, a phthalate used widely in consumer products, usually to soften brittle plastics.

6. Vinyl Floor Coverings - Flexible, adhesive bath mats from dollar stores have tested high in both phthalates and chlorine.

7. Holiday Light Strings - Handling such products as you style your tree could spread toxic dust to your hands, and then you might ingest it. high levels of chlorine and bromine (and therefore PVC and flame-retardant chemicals)

8. Metal Children’s Jewelry - Recent tests showed earrings from dollar stores with high lead levels, exceeding Consumer Product Safety Commission regulations.

9. Metallic Beads - tested high in bromine, indicating that recycled plastic was probably the filler ingredient for the beads.

10. Window Clings and Removable Wall Stickers - tend to contain PVC. 

When an $8.5 billion merger took place between Dollar Tree and Family Dollar, a representative from the Environmental Justice and Health Alliance, Michele Roberts, told The National Work Group for Safe Markets, the following: 

“These stores – which are estimated to reap $18 billion each year – sell products to mostly people of color and low income communities. The consumers who shop at Dollar Tree are already disproportionately impacted by toxic chemicals, and the local producers who sell products in these communities are undercut by the low-cost of these toxic products. This new giant retail entity has an especially important responsibility to their customers and the communities where they are located to make sure the products are safe from harmful toxics and to not add more harm to the legacy of toxic chemical exposures that already exists.”

Health Impacts

During new testing for the 2015 report, The Campaign for Healthier Solutions stated that a large number of common household items sold at Dollar General and Family Dollar are toxic.  But are these chemicals truly toxic and horrifying?  ToxNet from the U.S. National Library of Medicine and the Environmental Protection Agency’s Chemical Toxicity Databases confirm that many of the chemicals found in dollar store products are very damaging to a person’s health — especially with long-term exposure. For instance, phthalates are known for being linked to endocrine disruptors that can cause cancer, asthma, and reproductive problems for adults and fetuses. Bromine causes cancer and lead can cause kidney damage or brain damage due to heavy metal poisoning in children or adults.

Like 89.1 WEMU on Facebook and follow us on Twitter

— David Fair is the WEMU News Director and host of Morning Edition on WEMU.  You can contact David at734.487.3363, on twitter @DavidFairWEMU, or email him at dfair@wemu.org.

Contact David: dfair@emich.edu
Related Content