The Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) requires that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency compile and keep a current list of chemical substances manufactured or processed in the U.S. That list1 currently includes about 85,000 chemicals.
Among them are 10,000 chemicals allowed to be added to food and food-contact materials in the U.S., either directly or indirectly, yet few have been properly tested for safety.
An evaluation of nearly 4,000 additives intentionally added to food revealed 80 percent lacked enough information to determine how much could be safely eaten and only 6.7 percent had reproductive toxicology data.2 And that’s just food chemicals.
In recent years, researchers and scientists have raised warnings about mounting toxic exposures, leading to efforts to rein in the use of chemicals known to be hazardous to human health. Unfortunately, many companies are still failing in this regard.
Report Card Reveals Most Toxic Retailers
Three years ago, the Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families’ Mind the Store campaign started publishing a report card on retailer actions to eliminate toxic chemicals. The third annual report3,4 reveals which retailers have made strides to protect its customers from toxic chemicals in the products they sell, and which ones have not. This year, chain restaurants were also included for the first time.
About half of the 40 companies evaluated have made “slow but meaningful progress at improving the chemical safety of the products, food and packaging they sell,” while the other half, including all restaurant chains, have not made any discernible efforts to reduce toxicity. According to the report, published November 14, 2018:5
“Four retailers received the highest grades for their work to protect customers from toxic products and packaging, setting the pace for the industry: Apple (A+), Target (A), Walmart (A-) and IKEA (A-).
In 2018, Walgreens, Rite Aid and Amazon were ranked ‘most improved’ with all three companies announcing sweeping chemical safety policies over the past two months.”
Mike Schade, campaign director for Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families commented on the results:6
“Companies can prevent harm and protect public health by taking commonsense steps to phase out toxic chemicals in everyday products. Retailers have an important role to play — they have both the power and the moral responsibility to eliminate and safely replace toxic chemicals to ‘mind the store.’ They should stop letting chemical corporations put public health at risk.”
Which Retailers Scored Failing Grades in 2018?
In all, 19 of the 40 retailers, grocery and fast food restaurant chains included in the review received an “F” in 2018 for “failing to announce policies or publicly report progress to assess, reduce or eliminate toxic chemicals in the products or packaging they sell.” As noted by Tracy Gregoire, project coordinator for Learning Disabilities Association of America’s Healthy Children:7
“Learning and developmental disabilities now affect 1 in 6 children. Over a quarter of these disabilities are linked to toxic chemical exposures. Prenatal and early childhood exposure to harmful chemicals in consumer products and food packaging can lead to lifelong impacts and chronic health conditions.
Major retailers have both the opportunity and the responsibility to become industry leaders by keeping toxic chemicals out of products and packaging to protect children’s minds and bodies.”
While some of the companies that received an “F” would seem like “givens,” even companies like Trader Joe’s and Publix are on this list.
Companies that received a Failing Grade for 20188
|Trader Joe’s||Panera Bread|
|Office Depot||Sally Beauty|
|Subway||Restaurant Brands International|
|Dollar General||TJX Companies|
|Yum! Brands||Ace Hardware|
|Sobeys||99 Cents Only|
Executive director of the Environmental Health Strategy Center, Mike Belliveau, a coauthor of the report, said:9
“The food we buy should nourish us, not expose us to toxic chemicals from packaging and processing. Restaurant chains are serving up a recipe for poor health by failing to slash the use of toxic chemicals in food packaging and other food contact materials.
Toxic industrial chemicals like phthalates and PFAS don’t belong in the food we eat. Consumers expect a lot more leadership from food retailers in getting toxic chemicals out of the food supply chain.”
According to the report, this year’s analysis reveals five key findings:10
1.Retailers are making an effort to remove certain toxic chemicals from their products — Examples given include phthalates, parabens and formaldehyde in beauty and personal care products, and oxybenzone in sunscreens.
Rite Aid is planning to eliminate two types of phthalates from its private label products by 2020, and will phase out nine others. By the end of 2022, Home Depot will also prohibit two phthalates and seven other chemicals in any household cleaning products they sell.
Ten retailers — Lowe’s, Sherwin-Williams, The Home Depot, Walmart, True Value, PPG Paints, AutoZone, Kelly-Moore Paints, Canadian Tire and Home Hardware — have all vowed to cease selling paint strippers containing methylene chloride and NMP by the end of 2018.
According to the report, “At least three paint stripper brands have recently announced new products coming to market that are free of methylene chloride and NMP, showing the power of retailers to drive the development of safer solutions.”
2.Retailers are strengthening or adopting new policies to address toxic chemicals — Aside from Walgreens, Rite Aid and Amazon — which reported the most significant improvements in this regard — Target, Lowe’s, Costco, Kohl’s and Sephora also improved.
3.Retailers are “aligning around a common list of chemicals of concern” — primarily the beauty and personal care stewardship list,11 created by the Forum for the Future in collaboration with The Sustainability Consortium, which is a subset of a larger list12 containing several thousand chemicals with suspected toxicity, developed by government agencies in the U.S., Europe and other regions.
4.Food retailers, on the other hand, “seriously lag behind,” having been slow to adopt policies to reduce or eliminate known toxins such as phthalates and PFAS from their packaging and materials that come into contact with the food.
5.Despite progress, “too many” retailers are still not addressing the chemical safety of their products — “Almost half the retailers evaluated lacked even the most basic public chemicals policy,” the report states.
American Academy of Pediatrics Calls for Reduced Exposure to Chemicals
The fact that all food retailers received a failing score is disturbing, considering their overall impact on an individual’s day-to-day chemical exposure. As noted by Dr. Leonardo Trasande, a member of the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) Council on Environmental Health and lead author of the AAP’s policy statement on toxic food chemicals issued earlier this year:13
“There are critical weaknesses in the current food additives regulatory process, which doesn’t do enough to ensure all chemicals added to foods are safe enough to be part of a family’s diet. As pediatricians, we’re especially concerned about significant gaps in data about the health effects of many of these chemicals on infants and children …
Chemicals that affect the endocrine system, for example, can have lasting effects on a child since hormones coordinate complex functions throughout the body. Even small disruptions at key moments during development can have lifelong consequences.”
In July 2018, the AAP, a group of over 65,000 pediatricians in the U.S., issued a policy statement urging parents to limit their children’s exposure to plastic chemicals known to leach into food from packaging, as well as chemical food additives, warning the chemicals may damage their children’s health for years to come.14 In a policy statement, the AAP expressed concerns related to:15
“[T]he use of colorings, flavorings and chemicals deliberately added to food during processing (direct food additives) as well as substances in food contact materials, including adhesives, guys, coatings, paper, paperboard, plastic and other polymers which may contaminate food as part of packaging or manufacturing equipment …”
Some of those chemicals include phthalates, nitrates and bisphenols. Experts fear these chemicals have a range of side effects in humans, including metabolic dysfunction, thyroid and other endocrine disruption, impaired brain development, increasing risk of obesity and decreased birth weight.16Synthetic hormones may also disrupt how calories are processed and ultimately how they are converted, contributing to metabolic dysfunction.
World Health Organization Has Also Issued Warnings About Food and Plastic Chemicals
A 2013 joint report by the World Health Organization (WHO) and the United Nations Environment Program17 also warned that an all-out ban on endocrine disrupting chemicals may be needed to protect the health of future generations.
This report is one of the most comprehensive on endocrine disrupting chemicals commonly found in plastics and food additives to date, and highlights a wide variety of problems, including undescended testicles, breast, prostate and thyroid cancer, nervous system defects and the development of attention deficit disorder and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder in children.18