Holiday Buyers Beware: 9 Retailers Who Got an 'F' Rating for Failing to Take Action on Dangerous Chemicals in Consumer Products

This holiday season, the best gift Trader Joe's, Kohl’s and Sally Beauty can give us is a commitment to a toxic-free future.

Trader Joe's, New York City.
Photo Credit: Roman Tiraspolsky/Shutterstock

Whether we're shopping for holiday gifts or everyday items, we can all agree that no one should have to wonder whether the products found on store shelves contain chemicals that could one day make us sick. Parents shouldn't have to worry whether their children's car seat contains cancer-causing flame retardants. We shouldn't have to wonder whether the fragrance in our teenage daughter’s shampoo is formulated with hormone-disrupting phthalates, or if our food is packaged with extremely persistent chemicals like poly- and perfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS).

But toxic chemicals are hiding in everyday products all around us, from cleaning products and cosmetics to baby toys, electronics and foods. These chemicals are produced by corporate polluters like Exxon Mobil and DowDuPont and end up in products that are sold by many of the nation's biggest retailers in thousands of stores across the country. As Sharon Lerner reported last year on The Intercept, "Petrochemicals accounted for more than a quarter of Exxon Mobil’s $16 billion in net profits last year and wound up in a wide range of consumer products such as plastics, tires, batteries, detergents, adhesives, synthetic fibers and household detergents."

Toxic chemicals and public health 

Scientists, doctors and nurses around the country are sounding the alarm that exposure to toxic chemicals commonly found in everyday household products is contributing to diseases and health problems such as cancer, infertility, learning and developmental disabilities, diabetes and asthma.

Last year, a collaboration of scientists, health professionals and children's and environmental advocates called Project TENDR released a Consensus Statement as a national call to action to "significantly reduce exposures to chemicals and pollutants that are contributing to neurodevelopmental disorders in America's children." 

"Children in America today are at an unacceptably high risk of developing neurodevelopmental disorders that affect the brain and nervous system including autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, intellectual disabilities, and other learning and behavioral disabilities," read the statement, which was endorsed by over a dozen national and international health organizations, including the American Nurses Association, the Child Neurology Society and the National Association of Pediatric Nurse Practitioners.

The health professionals made a firm recommendation: "To help reduce the unacceptably high prevalence of neurodevelopmental disorders in our children, we must eliminate or significantly reduce exposures to chemicals that contribute to these conditions. ... We call on businesses to eliminate neuro­ developmental toxicants from their supply chains and products."

Toxic chemicals can end up in our food, water, air, even in household dust—and most are not adequately regulated. Newborns and fetuses in the womb are the most vulnerable groups and face the greatest risks as a result of chemical exposure. Although these chemicals come from multiple sources, many are present in the products we buy. Earlier this year, the New York Times reported that even something as basic as boxed macaroni and cheese—a meal many kids love—may contain "high concentrations" of "potentially harmful chemicals that were banned from children’s teething rings and rubber duck toys a decade ago."

It's time retailers put the interests of our families' health above the special interests of chemical corporations. Big retailers can innovate to reduce or eliminate toxic chemicals—particularly the worst of the worst chemicals—from the products they carry to help safeguard public health. Not only is it fair that they enact sensible policies to protect our health and environment, it is more critical than ever for companies and consumers to take action, since the Trump administration’s EPA is weakening the implementation of America's new chemical safety law, signed just last year. 

Making progress: Walmart and Target

In the retail sector, there has been progress. Last year, Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families released a report, "Who’s Minding the Store? A Report Card on Retailer Actions to Eliminate Toxic Chemicals," which assessed 11 of the nation's major retailers. It found that several have taken concrete steps to address the situation.

"A handful of U.S. chain stores are making meaningful progress in ensuring that dangerous chemicals are not used in everyday products they carry," the report stated.

"Walmart reported a 95% reduction by weight of 16 'high priority' chemicals in certain products, and Target has adopted a list of more than 2,000 chemicals that it’s seeking to avoid in products sold on its shelves."

Some progress, but too many retailers remain laggards

The 2017 report card, which stresses the continued need for market transformation, has been expanded to add 19 new retailers; 30 in total. Additionally, the report evaluated how the policies of the 11 retailers' policies that were assessed last year have changed or improved since then.

This year, seven of the largest retailers in the United States heard consumers' concerns about toxic substances, announcing new restrictions on toxic chemicals in their products. Growing consumer awareness, campaigns by consumer advocacy groups and mounting scientific evidence of the health impacts from dangerous chemicals have all played a role in getting the private sector to take action.

Overall, 11 retailers evaluated in both 2016 and 2017 have showed substantial improvements in the past year, raising their grade from an average of D+ to C. Seven of these 11 retailers announced significant improvements over the last year alone: Albertsons Companies, Best Buy, Costco, CVS Health, the Home Depot, Target and Walmart Stores, Inc. released new safer chemicals policies or initiatives.

But while some are making the grade, too many are failing to take the most basic public steps to eliminate dangerous chemicals from the products they buy and sell. The new report found two-thirds of retailers remain serious laggards and are failing to develop public policies to ensure the chemical safety of the products and packaging they sell.

Here are nine major retailers that receive failing F grades:

The science is clear: Toxic substances in everyday products present a serious public health issue. And with an EPA weakened by the Trump administration, actions must be taken by companies and consumers. By simply keeping toxic chemicals off their shelves, the retail sector can help protect our health. This holiday season, the best gift America's big retailers can give us is a toxic-free future.

Tell America's top retailers to get toxic chemicals off their shelves. Learn more about the effort to protect families from toxic chemicals.


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Mike Schade is the Mind the Store Campaign Director at Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families.

Mike Belliveau is the Executive Director of the Environmental Health Strategy Center and a Senior Advisor to Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families.