Issues Of The Environment: Progressive Effort To Remove Harmful Chemicals From Consumer Products

May 12, 2021

Mind the Store Campaign Director Mike Schade
Credit Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families / saferchemicals.org

A new report released today by the Mind the Store campaign (a partner organization of the Ecology Center in Ann Arbor) finds significant chemical policy improvement. Nearly 70% of companies surveyed have better chemical safety programs now compared to their first evaluation dating as far back as 2016. Mike Schade is director of the campaign and joined by WEMU's David Fair to discuss the ongoing efforts to remove chemical hazards from consumer products. 

  


Overview

  • A new report released today by the Mind the Store campaign (a partner organization of the Ecology Center in Ann Arbor) finds significant chemical policy improvement with nearly 70% of companies surveyed having better chemical safety programs now compared to their first evaluation dating as far back as 2016. 
  • The study also finds that, in an unprecedented move in the history of the report, Target and Rite Aid will address racial injustice and health inequity by committing to screening beauty products marketed to women of color for toxic chemicals. Additionally, 12 major retailers with more than 65,000 stores worldwide have now pledged to eliminate or reduce toxic PFAS “forever chemicals” in food packaging.  
  • Taylor Morton, director of environmental health and education at WE ACT for Environmental Justice. “Research shows that women of color have higher levels of toxic chemicals related to beauty products in their bodies, and this is linked to higher incidences of cancer, poor infant and maternal health outcomes, learning disabilities, obesity, asthma, and other serious health concerns.
  • The study finds that corporate bans and restrictions around toxic PFAS “forever chemicals” in food packaging have grown considerably since years past. The report now finds 12 retailers now pledge to eliminate or reduce PFAS in food packaging, which impacts more than 65,000 stores worldwide. Meanwhile, some major fast-food and grocery retailers, such as Burger King and Kroger, have not taken action on PFAS in food packaging.
  • Mike Schade, Mind the Store Campaign Director (a partner organization of the Ecology Center in Ann Arbor says, “Despite a global pandemic and incredibly challenging year, retailers have continued to make substantial progress in reducing and eliminating classes of toxic chemicals like PFAS.”

2021 Survey Finds Significant Improvements to Chemical Policies 

A new report released by the Mind the Store campaign finds significant chemical policy improvement with nearly 70% of companies surveyed having better chemical safety programs now compared to their first evaluation dating as far back as 2016. The study also finds that, in an unprecedented move in the history of the report, Target and Rite Aid will address racial injustice and health inequity by committing to screening beauty products marketed to women of color for toxic chemicals. Additionally, 12 major retailers with more than 65,000 stores worldwide have now pledged to eliminate or reduce toxic PFAS “forever chemicals” in food packaging.  

The report results show significant improvement over time. Nearly 70% of companies surveyed have improved their grade compared to their first evaluation in the retailer report card. “We applaud retail leaders for stepping up to drive harmful chemicals out of consumer products and packaging,” explains report co-author and Mind the Store campaign director Mike Schade. “Despite a global pandemic and incredibly challenging year, retailers have continued to make substantial progress in reducing and eliminating classes of toxic chemicals like PFAS.”

The study finds six retailers with high grades, scoring A- or above. For the first time, Sephora and Whole Foods Market were awarded A grades and joined consistent high performers Apple and Target, each with an A+, and IKEA and Walmart, each with an A-. 

This year’s analysis finds the lowest-ever percentage of retailers with F scores, with only 12 out of 50 receiving failing grades. Companies with failing grades include 7-Eleven, 99 Cents Only Stores, Ace Hardware, Alimentation Couche-Tarde (Circle K, Couche-Tard), Metro, Nordstrom, Publix, Restaurant Brands International (Burger King, Tim Hortons, Popeyes), Sally Beauty, Sobeys, Starbucks, and Subway.  “There is really no excuse for these retail laggards to earn a failing grade,” says report co-author and Defend Our Health executive director Mike Belliveau. “Retailers that are not properly managing chemical risks can lose the trust of their customers, lose market share to competitors, and may even risk facing significant financial and regulatory liabilities.”

In an unprecedented move in the history of the report card, two retailers have now committed to evaluating beauty products marketed to women of color for toxic chemicals found in those types of products, which helps address long-standing racial injustice and health inequity. Target and Rite Aid will specifically screen for toxic chemicals that are often found in these products, such as skin lightening cream and hair straighteners and relaxers. This follows the addition of new criteria in the report that challenges retailers to address this racial justice issue. Whole Foods Market has already banned some of these chemicals of concern (such as hydroquinone) in these products as well. 

“We applaud Target and Rite Aid for taking a leadership role in pledging to screen for toxic chemicals that are often found in beauty products marketed to women, and we hope that other retailers will follow their example,” said Taylor Morton, director of environmental health and education at WE ACT for Environmental Justice. “Research shows that women of color have higher levels of toxic chemicals related to beauty products in their bodies, and this is linked to higher incidences of cancer, poor infant and maternal health outcomes, learning disabilities, obesity, asthma, and other serious health concerns. Reducing exposure to toxic chemicals in beauty and other personal care products will help address this critical but often overlooked environmental justice issue that contributes to the disproportionately higher cumulative exposure to toxics in communities of color.”

“Availability of safe and affordable consumer products marketed to Black women is an environmental justice issue,” explains Dr. Maida Galvez, a professor in environmental medicine and public health & pediatrics at Mount Sinai. “Women need to know that products on the marketplace are free of harmful chemicals that can affect their health or their pregnancy. This can have a real and meaningful impact in preventing and reducing harmful exposures to millions of people across the United States.”

The beauty and personal care sector reported among the greatest gains of any retail sector overall. Ulta Beauty was the most improved retailer in the last year, earning a C- grade as compared with its F result in 2019. And, Sephora has shown the greatest improvement over time, receiving an A grade, up from a D when first evaluated in 2017.

The study finds that corporate bans and restrictions around toxic PFAS “forever chemicals” in food packaging have grown considerably since years past. The report now finds 12 retailers now pledge to eliminate or reduce PFAS in food packaging, which impacts more than 65,000 stores worldwide. Meanwhile, some major fast-food and grocery retailers, such as Burger King and Kroger, have not taken action on PFAS in food packaging. “The movement to ban PFAS started in Washington state and now the dominos are falling in the marketplace and other states. This is creating a perfect storm for ending the use of PFAS in food packaging,” explains Toxic-Free Future executive director Laurie Valeriano. 

The report also finds that some retailers are taking new action to restrict PFAS in textiles. Lowe’s became the first major retailer to announce it will no longer sell fabric protection sprays containing PFAS. REI announced that it is restricting PFAS in all clothing treatment and ski wax products but still allows PFAS in outdoor apparel and other textiles.

Dollar stores won “most improved” retail sector overall in the report as compared to last year. Dollar Tree (including Family Dollar) improved from a D+ to a C+. Dollar General earned a C- grade, making progress from its D grade in 2019. “We are pleased to see dollar stores starting to take seriously the need to phase out harmful chemicals from their products,” said José T. Bravo, national coordinator for the Campaign for Healthier Solutions. “Still, they have a long way to go. People of color and low-income communities are already over-exposed to toxic chemicals. Especially during this pandemic, these stores should be going above and beyond to protect their employees and customers.”

The fifth annual Who’s Minding the Store? A Report Card on Retailer Actions to Eliminate Toxic Chemicals evaluates and grades the chemical policies and practices of 50 retail chains covering more than 200,000 stores in the U.S. and Canada. 

To access the full retailer report card, visit www.RetailerReportCard.com.

###

Mind the Store Campaign

The national Mind the Store campaign, a program of Toxic-Free Future, challenges big retailers to eliminate toxic chemicals and replace them with safer alternatives.  The campaign publishes the annual retailer report card that benchmarks and scores major retailers on their safer chemicals policies and implementation programs. www.mindthestore.org and www.retailerreportcard.org

Mind the Store’s fifth annual Who’s Minding the Store? A Report Card on Retailer Actions to Eliminate Toxic Chemicals is a collaboration of nonprofit partner organizations including Campaign for Healthier Solutions, Clean & Healthy NY, Defend Our Health, Environmental Defence Canada, Getting Ready for Baby, Safer Chemicals Healthy Families, Safer States, Toxic-Free Future, and We ACT for Environmental Justice. The Mind the Store campaign and the Retailer Report Card also include dozens of other partners including Alaska Community Action on Toxics, Alaska PIRG, Alliance for a Healthy Tomorrow,Breast Cancer Prevention Partners, Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, Center for Environmental Health, ChemFORWARD, Clean Water Action, Coalition for a Safe and Healthy CT, Ecology Center, Maryland PIRG Foundation, Learning Disabilities Association of America and state affiliates, National Center for Health ResearchNC Child, NC Conservation Network, NRDC, Oregon Environmental Council, U.S. PIRG Education Fund, Women for a Healthy Environment, and Women’s Voices for the Earth.

Toxic-Free Future

Toxic-Free Future advocates for the use of safer products, chemicals, and practices through advanced research, grassroots organizing, and consumer engagement to ensure a healthier tomorrow. www.toxicfreefuture.org

Defend Our Health

Defend Our Health works to create a world where all people are thriving, with equal access to safe food and drinking water, healthy homes, and products that are toxic-free and climate-friendly. www.defendourhealth.org

(Source: *directly quoted* https://toxicfreefuture.org/new-study-finds-nearly-70-of-companies-surveyed-have-improved-toxic-chemical-safety-programs/)

How can beauty products harm women of color?

Research shows that women of color are disproportionately exposed to toxic chemicals and that beauty and personal care products are one source of exposure.

These products often contain more toxic ingredients, particularly hormone disruptors such as parabens and phthalates, than products marketed to white women.

And because of a difference in the number of personal care products used daily — black women on average purchase nine times more beauty products than white women — the potential harm of these toxic ingredients is multiplied.

These are the same types of chemicals that have been measured at higher levels in the bodies of women of color and have been linked to reproductive disorders, such as fibroids and early onset puberty — disorders where racial and ethnic disparities are notable.

PFAS in food and food packaging

In a new report, the Ecology Center, the Mind the Store campaign, Toxic-Free Future, and its partners found that nearly half of all take-out food packaging tested from multiple popular food chains contains potentially toxic chemicals. The new investigation shows that all six food chains sampled had one or more food packaging items that likely contain toxic PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances)—chemicals known to threaten human health.

The new study, Packaged in Pollution: Are food chains using PFAS in packaging?, analyzed packaging from six national food chains, including top fast-food chains Burger King, McDonald’s, and Wendy’s as well as top health-minded food chains Cava, Freshii, and Sweetgreen. The testing suggests toxic PFAS treatment in both McDonald’s “Big Mac” container and Burger King’s “Whopper” wrapper as well as all of the health-conscious chains’ salad bowls. (See results in the chart below.)

The report is part of the ongoing work of the Michigan-based Ecology Center to highlight the continued use of hazardous PFAS chemicals in consumer products. In the last two years, Ecology Center studies have identified PFAS use in residential and commercial carpeting, shoes, and children's crib mattresses.  Most recently, researchers at the Ecology Center, working with chemists at the University of Notre Dame and Indiana University, have identified PFAS) waterproofing chemicals in 23% (3 of 13) tested crib mattresses.

The new study coincides with pending state legislation by Sen. Jeff Irwin (D-Ann Arbor), to phase out the use of PFAS in food packaging in Michigan.

Four out of the six food chains studied do not have a public chemical policy to address toxic PFAS in their food packaging materials. Today, in response to the study, Cava announced it will eliminate PFAS from its food packaging by mid-2021. Sweetgreen also recently announced that it is phasing out PFAS from its bowls by the end of 2020 and has already introduced PFAS-free bowls in one market. Other major retailers and restaurants that have committed to moving away from PFAS include Chipotle, Panera Bread, Taco Bell, Trader Joe’s, and Whole Foods Market.

Today’s fast food packaging testing found that items in two packaging categories— paper bags used for greasy foods along with molded fiber bowls and trays—most frequently tested above the fluorine screening level, suggesting toxic PFAS treatment. Paper bags sampled included a French fry bag from McDonald’s, a chicken nuggets bag from Burger King, and cookie bags from all three burger chains. On the other hand, a packaging material category found to be free of PFAS were paperboard containers, specifically, the cartons and clamshells used for fried foods and desserts at burger chains. All of these sampled paperboard items tested below the fluorine screening level, suggesting that they are PFAS-free.

Scientists have found links between exposures to PFAS and a wide range of health problems. “These toxic chemicals are linked to serious health problems like cancer, liver damage, decreased fertility, and asthma,” explains Dr. Linda S. Birnbaum, Scholar in Residence at Duke University, Scientist Emeritus and Former Director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) and National Toxicology Program (NTP). “PFAS can weaken our immune system, making us more vulnerable to infectious diseases like COVID-19.”

A consortium of scientists recently published a new scientific statement emphasizing the dangerous health impacts of PFAS and other toxic chemicals in food packaging, noting how easily these chemicals migrate out of packaging. “PFAS chemicals don’t ever break down.  They permanently remain in the environment and easily move into people, persisting in our bodies,” adds Dr. Birnbaum.

The investigation commissioned an independent laboratory to measure total fluorine in a total of 38 food packaging samples from 16 locations across six chains. Nine out of the 38 samples were replicates, resulting in 29 unique sample items for analysis. Samples were collected at food chains in and around New York City, Seattle, WA, and Washington, DC in January 2020 and were analyzed in February 2020.

The study found that 14 food packaging items tested above the fluorine screening level. Testing for total fluorine is a common way to assess the use of toxic PFAS chemicals. At least one food packaging item from each of the six food chains studied tested above the fluorine screening level, suggesting the presence of PFAS chemicals.

"PFAS are a dangerous class of chemicals that are in our blood, our water, and even our food," said Sen. Jeff Irwin (D-Ann Arbor). "Food packaging is one way that we put PFAS in our bodies and these dangerous chemicals are in many common food items such as french fry or chicken nugget bags, and burger wrappers at fast food chains.  That's why I'm proposing legislation to protect people from this unnecessary harm by banning PFAS in food packaging." 

PFAS are chemicals used to impart stain, grease, and water resistance to food packaging, carpeting, upholstery, and apparel. The chemicals are also used in firefighting foam, ski wax, and industrial applications. Toxic exposures continue even after the packaging is disposed of. Evidence shows that these chemicals can make their way back to people through drinking water, food, and air. Food crops and gardens can become polluted with PFAS-containing compost, as shown from research demonstrating plants taking up PFAS from soil. Scientists often refer to PFAS as “forever chemicals” because they don’t break down in the environment.

“These toxic chemicals continue to contaminate people and pollute the environment long after the disposable packaging is discarded. And there’s really no need for it,” said Mike Schade, Mind the Store campaign director.

"National fast food companies like McDonalds need to show leadership and stop using PFAS treated packaging. We also challenge all Michigan-based food businesses, small and large, to stop using PFAS treated food packaging," stated Jeff Gearhart, research director at the Ecology Center. "We also applaud State Senator Irwin's legislation to address this issue and urge passage of this legislation."

Without national regulation of toxic PFAS, accelerated action from food retailers in addressing PFAS in food-packaging materials is necessary to reduce exposures to people and the environment. “Multiple major food chains have now announced new policies on PFAS. So, clearly, safer alternatives exist and are being used. Those that haven’t stepped up have the ability to do so,” Schade explains. “As the largest fast-food chain in the world, McDonald’s has a responsibility to its customers to keep them safe. These dangerous chemicals don’t belong in its food packaging. I, for one, am NOT ‘lovin’ it." Today, the Mind the Store campaign and its partners launched a petition to McDonald’s urging them to take action by committing to the elimination of PFAS in their food-packaging materials. (Source: *directly quoted* https://www.ecocenter.org/new-study-indicates-toxic-chemicals-used-take-out-food-packaging-popular-food-chains)

Mike Schade

Mike Schade is the Campaign Director for Mind the Store, a program that challenges the nation’s leading retailers to transform the marketplace away from hazardous chemicals and towards safer alternatives. For the previous nine years, Mike was the Markets Campaign Coordinator with the Center for Health, Environment & Justice (CHEJ), a national environmental health organization where he led national campaigns to phase out PVC plastic, phthalates, bisphenol A (BPA) and dioxin in consumer products and packaging. (Source: *directly quoted* https://saferchemicals.org/staff/mikeschade/)

Non-commercial, fact based reporting is made possible by your financial support.  Make your donation to WEMU today to keep your community NPR station thriving.

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 at 734.487.3363, on twitter @DavidFairWEMU, or email him at dfair@emich.edu