Testing for toxics

Sara Sekarak cuts up sample in product testing lab at Ecology

Sara Sekerak, an Ecology product testing scientist, cuts up a sample for testing.

New testing Ecology found chemicals that could be toxic in children’s products.

If you’re a parent, you are probably wondering, “What should I do about it? How concerned should I be?”

Our product testing data is an important starting place for answering those questions. Ecology’s product testing program supports Washington’s laws governing toxics in products. Known toxic chemicals like lead and cadmium are banned in children’s products, as are a number of toxic phthalates and flame retardants.

One of the most complex and important of Washington’s toxics in products laws is the Children’s Safe Products Act, or CSPA. This is the law that bans lead, cadmium, flame retardants and the chemicals known as phthalates from children’s products. CSPA is a really important law: It paved the way for national restrictions on lead, cadmium and phthalates, and it has served as a model for other states, such as Oregon, Vermont and Minnesota.

Chick list? CHCC list!

Along with banning the use of some chemicals, CSPA also requires manufacturers to tell Ecology if their children’s products contain anything on a list of 85 chemicals. This is called the “Chemicals of High Concern to Children” list.

Like CSPA itself, what we call the “CHCC list” (pronounced “chick list”) is a big deal. Even though CSPA is a Washington law, it applies to products made anywhere in the world that are offered for sale in Washington. That means manufacturers from all across the world are entering data into our database about the chemical ingredients used in their products if they are on the list.

This fall, Ecology updated the CHCC list in response to a 2016 law that banned five flame retardants and told us to evaluate whether six others should be added to the list. We did add those six, along with several other flame retardants, some phthalates and a handful of other chemicals — 22 chemicals altogether. We also removed three chemicals from the list based on scientific evidence provided to us.

Putting it to the test

Various bath products and bottles Ecology tested for chemicals of concern

Personal care products Ecology tested for chemicals of concern to children.

To test whether manufacturers are complying with CSPA and Washington’s other toxics laws, Ecology buys products we think might contain these chemicals. We send samples from the products to our laboratory in Manchester for chemical analysis. You can’t fit a teddy bear in a test tube, so there’s a surprising amount of science that goes into analyzing products at Manchester, including developing new methods for analyzing some chemicals and materials.

While the CHCC list was being updated by Ecology’s regulatory staff this summer, our product testing team was also at work, finishing up a testing report on four chemicals commonly reported under CSPA. We tested products for four chemicals — formaldehyde, styrene, methyl ethyl ketone and octamethylcyclotetrasiloxane (also called D4).

Formaldehyde is commonly used as an adhesive, as a finishing treatment for fabrics, and a preservative in personal care products. Styrene is used to manufacture plastics. Methyl ethyl ketone is used in various coatings, adhesives and inks. D4 is used in the manufacture of silicone and as a component in personal care products.

OK, we went shopping, bought 137 children’s products we thought might have these chemicals in them, tested them, and… found one or more of those chemicals in a bunch of the products. This brings us back to our original question, what does that mean to you?

It’s a little complicated

Under CSPA, most of the chemicals on the CHCC list aren’t illegal for manufacturers to use, even in children’s products. That is to say, they aren’t illegal as long as the manufacturer tells us if those chemicals are in their stuff.

Paw Patrol child's bowl

A child's bowl found to contain formaldehyde.

This goes back to why Washington’s Legislature passed the CSPA law in 2008 — they asked Ecology to collect information about the use of chemicals of concern in children’s products. Chemicals on the CHCC list meet specific criteria for toxicity and potential for exposure. Toxicity is based on a U.S. or European government listing. Potential for exposure is based on scientific studies that show the chemical is present in the home (e.g., it is found in children’s products, house dust, or biomonitoring data).
In some cases, as more evidence becomes available, the Legislature moves to further regulate the use of chemicals on the CHCC list. That’s what happened with the five flame retardants banned in 2016. In other cases, when Ecology reviewed new evidence a chemical can be removed from the CHCC list. The 2017 CHCC list update removed three chemicals (D4, molybdenum, and phthalic anhydride). Those chemicals no longer meet the toxicity and exposure criteria Ecology uses to identify a CHCC.

Let’s go back to the new study. What did we find? The highest level of formaldehyde our study found was 3,390 parts per million (that is 0.339 percent) in a melamine bowl. It’s important to understand that this study tested for the presence of a chemical in a product. Presence isn’t the same thing as exposure to a chemical or the risks that come from that exposure, however. Product testing does not answer those questions.

What can a parent do with this information?

The manufacturer reports are available in a public database and Ecology publishes our product testing reports. This information can be helpful to consumers wanting to make more informed choices. We also believe that it helps push manufacturers to switch to safer chemical ingredients, or safer manufacturing processes.

Our product testing results also inform policy, such as new laws on toxics in products. When manufacturers aren’t accurately reporting what’s in their children’s products, we follow up with enforcement actions, which could result in fines or product recalls. When a product appears to violate national toxics standards, we share our data with the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission.

And it can be a two-way street: In the current study, we included several products based on earlier testing by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency for formaldehyde (Minnesota recalled Sesame Street Calming Lavender Baby Shampoo based on its formaldehyde content).

Does that clear it all up? Well, if nothing else, know that Ecology is keeping an eye on some of the chemicals used in children’s products and working to reduce children’s exposure to toxic chemicals.

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