The Ecology Center of Ann Arbor, Michigan, a nonprofit environmental research group, has spearheaded and publicized analysis of toxic chemicals in toys, cars, and children’s car seats for several years now. It has made its findings accessible on HealthyToys.org and HealthyCar.org, so concerned parents can protect the most vulnerable consumers: children.
Last Wednesday, the Center unveiled important new data on HealthyStuff.org involving another vulnerable population: animals.
This is the first year that the Center’s research has expanded to include items manufactured for the use and enjoyment of the pet population. It’s no small acknowledgment that childless people with pets are parents too — and that pets are as vulnerable as kids to toxic substances (if not more so, by virtue of their smaller size).
Using an XRF (shorthand for X-ray fluorescence analyzer), researchers examined some 900 common consumer products, over 400 pet products among them, for such hazardous chemicals as lead, cadmium, mercury, bromine, chlorine (PVC), and arsenic. These have been linked to reproductive and endocrine problems, developmental and learning disabilities, liver toxicity, and cancer in people.
Currently, there are no government standards for hazardous chemicals in pet products. So shockingly — or rather, not surprisingly — one quarter of the pet products tested, including all tennis balls manufactured exclusively for dogs, were found to have detectable levels of lead. Seven percent of the products screened showed levels higher than 300 ppm, the current Consumer Products Safety Commission standard for lead in children’s products. For those with dogs who live to play fetch and retrieve, this is very bad news. (Happily, balls made for human tennis players were found to be free of hazardous chemicals.)
Worried yet? Kitty toys don’t just contain catnip; while Puss is batting, clawing, hugging, and licking them, she’s also taking in hazardous bromine particles, scattering them about your home and licking them off her fur as she self-grooms. That’s because the toys’ fabric component is treated with brominated flame retardants, as are the covers of many pet beds. A 2007 EPA study linked BFRs to hyperthyroidism in cats. Meanwhile, chew toys for dogs contain arsenic as well as lead (for a complete listing by brand, visit HealthyStuff.org).
All this is enough to make cat owners sew their own catnip teasers and dog owner revert to butcher bones from Whole Foods (served raw, never cooked) or wooden sticks, nature’s low-tech fetch toys. It’s enough to make even the queasiest vegetarians provide their pups with prehistoric-looking preserved animal parts.
The presence of toxins in pet products doesn’t merely threaten pets’ health; it also impacts young children, who innocently play with the family pet’s playthings and cuddle up on the dog bed with Rover. This Norman Rockwell image should not be wrecked by the risk of inhaling and/or ingesting poisonous particles. For pet owners who like to keep a dog bed in the back of their vehicle for Spot’s comfort, here’s more bad news: a pet bed covered in fabric containing BFRs becomes extra-toxic when exposed to high temperatures inside a parked car. “High temperatures, up to 190 degrees, and lots of sun exposure in cars are really tough on products,” says Jeff Gearhart, research director for the Ecology Center. “Anything in a car, whether it is a pet bed or a children’s car seat, is likely to degrade and release chemicals at a faster rate.”
In the best, all-American, “bi-paw-tisan” spirit, Democratic Sen. Frank Lautenberg and Republican Rep. Bobby Rush are expected to introduce a new bill to reform the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA). The 33-year-old legislation became law in October 1976, when Gerald Ford was president. The proposed updates to TSCA would phase out most hazardous substances, prioritizing the “worst first,” and require manufacturers to take responsibility for their products’ safety. To find out how to contact your legislator, click on “Take Action: Support Federal Regulatory Reform” here.
Smart companies will stay ahead of the curve by investigating green chemistry, to avoid the high cost of retroactive changes in their manufacturing processes. Until industry can self-regulate, government needs to step in. “The more we test, the more we find that the presence of toxic chemicals is widespread in everyday consumer products,” says the Ecology Center’s Gearhart. “It should not be the responsibility of public health advocates to test these products. Product manufacturers and legislators must take the lead and replace dangerous substances with safe alternatives.”
Moms Rising president Joan Blades agrees. “It’s not reasonable to expect parents to be experts on toxins,” says Blades, who also co-founded MoveOn.org. “One-third of children today have allergies, asthma, ADD, or autism, and one-third are expected to develop diabetes — and it’s not all from food, it’s endocrine-disrupting chemicals. That’s unacceptable; it’s an epidemic. We need comprehensive chemical policy reform now.”