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How parents can use the Health Department’s toxic-chemical list

On Monday, the Minnesota Department of Health published a list of nine “priority chemicals” that pose a threat to the health of children and pregnant women.

These chemicals were selected from 1,755 “chemicals of high concern” that the agency identified last July. The Health Department was required to compile and publish (in collaboration with the Minnesota Polution Control Agency) both lists by a 2009 state law, the Toxic Free Kids Act.

To get on the short list, the chemical had to be, among other things, a known or suspected toxin (especially to the developing brain or reproductive system) and present in children’s products.  

Some of the substances on the list (lead, formaldehyde) will be familiar to parents. Others (decabromodiphenyl ether?) won’t. But knowing what’s on the list is one thing. Knowing what to do with the list is something else. For, to keep these chemicals away from your child, you’re going to have to be an enterprising and dogged researcher. Manufacturers and retailers are not always required to let consumers know what’s in their products.

Here are the nine chemicals selected by the Health Department:

Bisphenol A. It’s found in kids’ toys and other products made of polycarbonate plastic and in can linings, including the linings of infant formula cans.

Cadmium. Charm bracelets, pendants and other cheap children’s jewelry have been found to contain remarkably high levels of this heavy metal. It’s currently regulated in painted toys, but not in jewelry.

Lead. Banned long ago from paint, this heavy metal still surfaces in a variety of children’s items, including purses, jewelry and painted drinking glasses.

Formaldehyde. A known carcinogen, formaldehyde has also been linked to asthma and dermatitis. It can be found in all sorts of building materials, some clothing (particularly wrinkle-free items) and household cleaning products. It’s also found in some children’s bath products.

Phthalates (BBP, DBP, DEHP). These chemicals, which help make plastic soft, are found in a variety of children’s toys and in vinyl shower curtains. They’re also used to produce fragrances, and thus are in many cosmetic and personal care products.

Decabromodiphenyl ether (decaBDE) and hexabromocyclododecane. These flame retardants are found in mattresses and textiles that kids can be exposed to. They’re also in old TVs, computers and other electronic equipment.

What’s a concerned parent to do?
Nancy Rice, an environmental research scientist at the Health Department who participated in the compilation of the list, pointed out to me in an interview yesterday that three children’s products — plastic baby bottles and sippy cups made with BPA, as well as children’s jewelry made with cadmium — have already been banned from sale in Minnesota. In fact, we were the first state to pass those bans.

But that, of course, leaves hundreds of other products that parents will have to check out themselves to make sure they’re free of these chemicals. Rice recommends contacting manufacturers and retailers to ask what’s in their products, as well as reading through product-related federal websites, like that of the Consumer Product Safety Commission. She also says to read labels carefully, as some companies now advertise their products as being “BPA-free” or “low-formladehyde.”

None of that sounds easy (or that reliable). But the Health Department hasn’t been given the mandate (or the money) to take the next step and require manufacturers to phase out these chemicals from their products.

Rice acknowledged that the Health Department’s list “is probably more of a beginning than an endpoint” for consumers.

Take the burden off parents
When the Toxic Free Kids Act was originally proposed, it included a couple of next-step provisions. One was a requirement that manufacturers report to the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency any chemicals in their products identified as being potentially harmful to children’s health. Another gave the state the authority to restrict those chemicals if safer alternatives were available.

Both provisions were stripped from the final bill.

“They could have required that manufacturers phase out the chemicals, but that regulatory piece wasn’t in the final bill,” said Kathleen Schuler, co-director of the Minnesota-based Healthy Legacy Coalition, in a phone interview Monday.

“People shouldn’t have to do the research,” she added. “They should know that all their kids’ products are safe. We should take the next step and restrict these chemicals.”

Schuler’s organization and others intend to continue to encourage legislators to give state agencies more authority on this issue, but, as she acknowledged, the Minnesota Legislature is not currently in “an environment that’s favorable to any regulatory or regulatory-like” actions.

In the meantime, Schuler hopes the Health Department will continue its research and add more chemicals to the “priority” list.

“This list is definitely a good start, but it’s just a start,” she said. “We know there are a lot more chemicals out there lurking in children’s products.”

One particular chemical she’d like to see on the list is another flame retardant — pentabromodiphenyl ether (penta-BDE).  It was added to textiles and foam products (including crib pads and breast-feeding pillows) after the flame retardant brominated tris was banned from children’s sleepwear in 1977.

“They substituted one bad chemical for another, which is why we really need to fix the way chemicals are regulated,” said Schuler.

What you can do now
The Healthy Legacy website is a good starting place for parents who want to find out which products are safe for their children (and themselves). You’ll find tips about how to shop for chemical-free toys, cleaning products, plastics, personal-care products and more — with product names often included. Another great resource for parents is the Environmental Working Group’s website.

Schuler said her organization will soon have a tip list up on their website that deals specifically with the nine priority chemicals identified yesterday by the Health Department. In the meantime, she offered these shopping suggestions to Minnesota’s parents:

  • Avoid using old baby bottles or sippy cups unless you know they are BPA-free.
  • Avoid any canned food (buy frozen instead) unless the label stipulates that it’s BPA-free. Many infant formula cans have BPA linings. If in doubt, use powdered rather than liquid formula, as BPA is more likely to leak into the latter.
  • Throw out your child’s cheap jewelry. “Just get rid of it,” she said. “You don’t want to take the chance of the child chewing on it.”
  • Use fragrant-free products throughout your home. They’re less likely to have toxic phthalates in them.
  • Throw out your vinyl shower curtains; use non-vinyl, non-plastic ones. “That ‘new curtain’ smell is the phthalates in the vinyl,” said Schuler.
  • Make sure you purchase formaldehyde-free bath products for your child. Also, look for formaldehyde-free furniture and household cleaners.
  • Get rid of old TVs and computer monitors, which may contain some of the flame retardant chemicals on the Health Department’s list. There’s evidence that these chemicals may get into your house’s dust — and be picked up by your child.

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