Monday, April 14, 2014

Earth ... pass it on: Tackling Toxics

Children First

By Erika Holmes, communications manager, Reducing Toxic Threats

Toxic chemicals, especially long-lasting ones that build up over time, can be found everywhere – our air, land, water … and our bodies. Some pose an immediate health threat, especially to children exposed during critical periods in their development. Others, called persistent, bioaccumulative toxics, gradually increase in the environment and in our bodies, causing disease long after we are first exposed.

Preventing exposures to toxics is the smartest, cheapest and healthiest way to protect people and the environment, which guides the Department of Ecology’s approach to reducing toxic threats in Washington.

Children are more sensitive to toxic chemicals than the general population. The presence of a chemical in a product does not necessarily mean it’s unsafe. However, knowing which chemicals of high concern to children manufacturers use in products provides essential clues to understand when safer alternatives are needed.

Groundbreaking laws help move toward safer products for children and general consumers

Many laws aimed at reducing the impacts of toxic chemicals ban or limit one chemical or product at a time. Washington is taking a broader approach by creating laws addressing one of the biggest challenges in developing more effective toxic chemical policies – the lack of data.

In 1991, Washington was one of the first states to pass legislation limiting four toxic metals (mercury, lead, cadmium, and hexavalent chromium) in all packaging. The toxics in packaging law takes a broad view of packaging by including its components and covering a wide range of materials used as packaging.

In 2008, Washington passed the Children’s Safe Product Act (CSPA). The law has two parts. The first part limited the amounts of lead, cadmium and six phthalates allowed in children’s products sold in Washington after July 1, 2009. Ecology and the Department of Health enacted the second part of the law by developing a list of chemicals of high concern to children and rules requiring manufacturers to report their use of these chemicals in children’s products.

Taking action: Moving from the law books to the laboratory

During 2012 and 2013, Ecology tested children’s and consumer products to verify that manufacturers are complying with CSPA and toxics in packaging requirements. Making sure manufacturers report the required information and discontinue using restricted metals involves enforcement. So we applied for grant funding from the Washington Attorney General’s Office to purchase and test products for several classes of chemicals:
  • Metals, including lead, mercury, cadmium, antimony, arsenic, molybdenum, chromium, cobalt, zinc and copper.
  • Phthalates, which are used to make plastic softer.
  • Parabens, which are used as preservatives in personal care products and cosmetics.
  • Formaldehyde and other volatile organic chemicals.
Ecology targeted products sold by local retailers and internet sellers that we thought were likely to contain these chemicals. We carefully prepared samples from each product and sent them to a lab to be analyzed for the chemicals of concern.

What we found

After comparing our test results with manufacturer-reported data, Ecology found that most are reporting as required and that most packaging in Washington is in compliance. Due to the phased reporting schedule in CSPA, some products that we identified as non-compliant were manufactured by companies with annual sales low enough that they did not yet have to report any chemicals of high concern to children in their products.

The most common chemicals in the enforcement letters that Ecology sent to manufacturers were chemicals like antimony, cobalt, phthalates, and parabens. We found 15 potential violations of limits on phthalates and seven potential violations of limits on lead or cadmium in the children’s products tested. We also found two violations on toxic metals in packaging that came with children’s products.

Here is a video clip explaining one example:

We did find, however, that chemicals of concern to children are being used in packaging, but packaging is currently exempt from CSPA and most chemicals of concern to children are not included in the toxics in packaging legislation. Packaging was tested for CSPA metals and for phthalates. Several packaging components were found to contain phthalates, including DEHP, one of the phthalates of highest concern as a reproductive toxic chemical. Similar results were found for some of the metals of concern.

Next steps

Ecology notified manufacturers of potential violations and is working with state and federal partners to ensure compliance. We are using information reported under CSPA to help us identify opportunities to replace toxic chemicals of concern with safer alternatives. But it’s also important to realize that the products we tested were purchased some time ago and may not be on the shelves anymore.

Recently, Washington’s legislature designated $611,000 to enhance Ecology’s work on testing consumer products for toxic chemicals and assessing alternatives to these chemicals. With this funding, we will coordinate with other states to ensure effective testing of products and packaging. As part of this funding package, the legislature also authorized Ecology to review the uses and alternatives to various flame retardants.

Putting together the toxics puzzle provides the big picture

These product-testing campaigns are just one piece of a much larger toxics puzzle. Thousands of toxic chemicals are used in our economy today, and we have limited data on how these chemicals impact people and the environment.

To effectively reduce toxic threats, we need new tools to help manufacturers make more informed choices about chemicals in their products. The smartest, cheapest and healthiest way to protect people and the environment is to find safer alternatives for chemicals of concern.

Ecology is working to reduce toxic threats through a series of projects and initiatives that we will cover in the Tackling Toxics ECOconnect blog series, including:
  • Enforcing the Better Brakes Law to reduce the use of toxics, such as copper, asbestos, and certain heavy metals, in automotive brake pads and shoes.
  • Developing chemical action plans for some of the worst chemicals. Currently we are working on a plan to identify and reduce sources of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs).
  • Adopting a standard, statewide process for manufacturers to find safer alternatives to toxic chemicals.

Get involved

You can stay informed on these issues by:
If you have questions or would like more information on reducing toxic threats in Washington, please contact Erika Holmes at (360) 407-6149.


Unknown said...

Important information! Thanks for presenting it in an understandable way!

Erika Holmes said...

Thanks for the feedback! We started the Tackling Toxics blog series because it's a complicated, but important topic that we want the public to understand.