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Dollar Store Products Contain Unsafe Levels of Toxic Chemicals, Report Says

A new analysis of products purchased at dollar stores around the country show that most included significant amounts of at least one hazardous chemical. The Campaign for Healthier Solutions tested 164 dollar store products—including several from stores in Louisville—and found high levels of chemicals like polyvinyl chloride, phthalates, lead and tin in 81 percent of them.

The products tested ran the gamut, from children’s toys to home décor to school and office supplies. Many were found to contain phthalates, which are endocrine disrupters that have been linked to birth defects, cancer, reproductive issues and asthma. Some had bromine, which is a component of fire retardants and is a possible human carcinogen. There’s no safe level of lead exposure for children; the heavy metal can cause brain and kidney damage.

In statements, the companies said they comply with all federal and state regulations:

“To that end, Dollar General uses accredited, third-party testing organizations that follow regulated guidelines and protocols to test all products that the company directly imports. This testing is designed to ensure imported products sold at Dollar General comply with all federal and state product safety standards. Additionally, all Dollar General suppliers, both foreign and domestic, are required to certify that the products they provide to Dollar General are properly tested to ensure compliance with state and federal product safety standards,” spokesman Dan MacDonald said via e-mail.

A spokeswoman for Family Dollar echoed that statement, and referred to the company’s quality and compliance program.

But the Campaign for Healthier Solutions report doesn’t allege that any rules or safety standards were violated. Rather, it said these products fall into gaps in the federal Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976. Children’s products are regulated for certain chemicals, but the report found that several other products weren’t necessarily made for children, but could still expose them to large amounts of toxins. Some could become exposed by licking or chewing the product, while others could be exposed as the products release toxic gases or dust.

Louisville biologist Monica Unseld works with the Campaign for Healthier Solutions. She said dollar stores cater to low-income and rural residents, many of whom don’t have other options for shopping.

“In low-income neighborhoods, they’re not going to have those big box stores like Targets and Wal-Mart. They’re going to have the Family Dollars, the Dollar Generals, the Dollar Trees,” she said. “And even in rural communities, they’re going to have these dollar stores where people shop. So they’re going to be more exposed to these chemicals than, say, someone who lives in the suburbs and they can go to Target or Wal-Mart.”

The Campaign for Healthier Solutions has also tested Target and Wal-Mart products in the past, and also found toxic chemicals in some products. But the two companies have instituted stricter safe chemical policiesto address the concerns.

“So we’re saying, why not follow the lead of Target and Wal-Mart and start getting these chemicals off the shelves?” Unseld asked. “It’s good for business, it’s good for customer loyalty, and it’s good for the health of the community.”

In Louisville, the non-profit tested various products from Family Dollar and Dollar Tree. Outside the Family Dollar in the city’s Russell neighborhood, Denise Thomas said she’s usually there three times a day.

“So where else are we supposed to shop?” she asked, after being told about the study’s results. “I don’t understand why we’ve never known about it, how they get by with it. Even if it’s legal, we should know, and have the choice whether we should shop here or go down the street to Kroger.”

One of the products tested—the Polly Fashion Doll—was on the shelf at the store. Using a portable X-ray Fluorescence analyzer, the testers found 392,474 parts per million of chlorine in the product (which indicates the use of polyvinyl chloride, or PVC), four parts per million of lead, and 30 parts per million of tin.

There were other dolls at the Family Dollar, some costing as much as $25. They may or may not have included the same chemicals. But the Polly Fashion Doll sells for $1.90, underscoring Unseld’s argument that low-income shoppers are disproportionately affected by exposure to these chemicals.