"The more we test, the more we find that the presence of toxic chemicals is widespread in everyday consumer products," said Jeff Gearhart, research director at the Ecology Center, founded by community activists in Ann Arbor after the first Earth Day in 1970.
Using a field-portable X-ray fluorescence analyzer, researchers at the Ecology Center focused on a subset of chemicals that can be detected by the XRF technology - lead, cadmium, chlorine, arsenic, bromine and mercury.
Products were tested for chemicals based on their toxicity, persistence and tendency to build up in people and the environment. The chemicals tested for have been linked to reproductive problems, developmental and learning disabilities, liver toxicity and cancer as well as environmental degradation.
In this latest round of testing, researchers analyzed the ingredients in some 900 common products, adding to a database of independent tests of toxic chemicals in consumer goods that is posted at www.HealthyStuff.org.
"It should not be the responsibility of public health advocates to test these products," Gearhart said. "Product manufacturers and legislators must take the lead and replace dangerous substances with safe alternatives."
Levels of some chemicals found in vehicles are five to 10 times higher than in homes or offices, the Ecology Center said in a statement, warning, "Since the average American spends more than 1.5 hours in the car every day, this can be a major source of toxic chemical exposure."
In this latest round of testing, nearly 700 new and used vehicles, from 1980 to 2010 model year vehicles, were analyzed for lead, cadmium, chlorine, arsenic, bromine and mercury.
As rated by the Ecology Center, the top three Best Picks were the U.S.-made Pontiac G5 and the Chevy Cobalt and the Japanese-made Toyota Corolla.
A 2009 Chevy Aveo, one of the cars that tested high in toxic chemicals. (Photo by Michael Kappel)
The top three Worst Picks were the U.S.-made Chevy Aveo, and the Japanese-made Mitsubishi Eclipse convertible and the Hyundai Tuscon SUV. Find a complete list of vehicles analyzed here.
Infant and child car seats, too, contain chemical additives that can have adverse health effects on babies and young children. Fifty-eight percent of the car seats tested were shown to contain one or more hazardous chemicals, including heavy metals, polyvinyl chloride and brominated flame retardants such as PBDEs.
The federal Agency for Toxic Substances says the concentrations of PBDEs in human blood, breast milk, and body fat indicate that most people are exposed to low levels of PBDEs.
"Despite the toxic chemicals," the Ecology Center was quick to remind website visitors, "it is vital to use a car seat for your child because they do save lives."
The Ecology Center gave three examples of car seats that had none of the chemicals tested for - Baby Trend Flex-Loc, the Graco Nautilus 3-in-1 Car Seat, and the Graco Turbo Booster.
Researchers tested over 400 pet products, including beds, chew toys, collars and leashes. One-quarter of all pet products had detectable levels of lead, including seven percent with levels higher than the current Consumer Product Safety Commission standard for lead in children's products of 300 parts per million.
"Since there are no government standards for hazardous chemicals in pet products, it is not surprising that alarming levels of toxic chemicals were found," said the Ecology Center, releasing the test results.
While some of the chemicals tested pose a risk of exposure to product users, another group of chemicals can harm the environment but do not present a health and safety risk to product users.
Polyvinyl chloride, PVC, for instance, found in many consumer products, is associated with the use and release of hazardous chemicals throughout the life cycle of the products, from production to disposal.
During the production phase, workers at PVC facilities and nearby residents may be exposed to vinyl chloride and/or dioxins, which are unwanted byproducts of PVC production. Both these chemicals are carcinogens.
At the end of a product's life, PVC can create dioxins when burned. Lead and other metals are sometimes used as stabilizers or to impart other properties to PVC plastic.
Because PVC is brittle, it requires additives called phthalates to make it flexible. Young children can be exposed to these chemicals if they bite or suck on PVC products containing them, but the Ecology Center did not test for phthlates.
Of the more than 60 common back-to-school supplies, such as backpacks, pencil cases, binders and lunchboxes tested by Ecology Center researchers, 22 percent contained detectable levels of lead.
"Nearly 90 percent of back-to-school supplies contained one or more chemicals of concern," the Ecology Center said.
Researchers tested over 100 women's handbags and detected lead in over 75 percent of the bags analyzed. Sixty-four percent of the bags contained lead over 300 parts per million – the Consumer Product Safety Council's limit for lead in children's products. Over half of the handbags contained more than 1,000 ppm lead.
Lead can harm brain development, with effects including reduced IQ, shorter attention span, and delayed learning. There is no safe level of lead exposure.
Since February 2009, products containing a concentration of lead greater than 600 ppm have been listed as banned hazardous substances. This limit was lowered to 300 ppm as of August 2009 and may be lowered to 100 ppm as of August 2011.
"HealthyStuff.org is an invaluable resource for busy parents who are concerned about toxic chemicals in children's products," said Joan Blades, president of the nonprofit Mom's Rising. "But it shouldn't be up to parents to look up every single item to find out if toxic chemicals are used. We need reform of the Toxic Substances Control Act now."
Senator Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey and Illinois Congressman Bobby Rush are expected to introduce a new bill this Congressional session to reform the Toxic Substances Control Act.
These reforms would phase out the most dangerous chemicals from the manufacturing process; require industry to take responsibility for the safety of their products; and use the best science to protect vulnerable groups.
To date the EPA has required testing on only about 200 of the more than 80,000 chemicals that have been on the market since the law was passed 33 years ago.
"A Made in the USA label should be a guarantee, not a warning," said Charlotte Brody, national field director for safer chemicals with Healthy Families, a coalition working toward toxic chemical policy reform.
"This database of products is further proof that our system of testing and regulating toxic chemicals is broken," Brody said. "We have an opportunity to reform federal law this year and start putting common sense limits on harmful chemicals to protect the health of Americans."
Copyright Environment News Service, ENS, 2009. All rights reserved.