Environment

Why Shopping at Costco Could Be Making You Sick

After a Costco shopper was hit with a wave of nausea, she took a closer look at the big-box store's products and their potential hazards.

You know that oppressive feeling that comes over you after passing through the manned warehouse doors of Costco? It's not just product overload, although the visual onslaught of discount merchandise under artificial lights and without any open windows can be extremely daunting.

It could be your body's response to the toxic plastic and corrosive chemicals permeating the bowling alley lanes of electronics, landfill-bound picnic supplies and sprayed imported produce and flowers, and the dizzying assortment of scented cleaning agents and softeners in super-duper-sized vats.

On a recent shopping trip to a South San Francisco Costco store, my 11-year-old daughter and I experienced flu-like nausea and headaches from inhaling all of the above, plus the putrid, pungent sanitizer the store was sloshing on its surfaces to combat the diverse parade of fresh germs. Gag me with a disposable spoon! I have smelled the ferocious and foul anti-green, and her name is Costco. A Twitter subscriber named Robert Andersen once wrote: "Costco smells of the American dream; and relish." I can only hope the perfume I inhaled was not the American dream.

My child and I, both prone to allergies and sharing a keen sense of smell, turned to one another, gasped, and ran outside to the parking lot for relief. Forget those tempting bottles of wine and three-pack storage containers I thought I needed. Saving a few bucks was no longer worth the price.

You see, Costco is truly a warehouse, with open doors at the entrance and inadequate ventilation, so the off-gassing and odor emissions are sealed within. Mind you, I'm just a recreational Costco shopper, someone who diverts occasionally from the decidedly safe, small, outdoor, local and organic options to roam the bulk toilet paper range. It made me wonder about weekly exposure to this wholesale poor zone for America's new arrivals; lower- and middle-class families; frugal school and office purchasers and any one of us on a tight food and household budget.

It also made me wonder about daily exposure for Costco employees, like the janitors who were wiping down the floors and the nice ladies doing the popular food demonstrations. "Have some hummus," they offer, sweetly. "Hey, have a gas mask, lady. I think you might need it."

A call to one of the membership managers at the South San Francisco store told me that the cleaning product the maintenance crew was using the day I visited was none other than Formula 409 All-Purpose Cleaner. According to Reina (first names only allowed), this may be a product specific to this one warehouse and there may be a corporate-wide cleaning solution used elsewhere. According to Bradley Corporation, 409 does not contain ammonia or bleach, just non-ionic and cationic surfactants, solvents and dye. Yet I'm certain I detected ammonia and bleach that day and I have a feeling it wasn't just the cleaner making me sick, but the blend of the agents with other off-gasses and emissions being released into the largely sealed environment.

True, not all of the products used or sold at Costco reek and have the potential to make you feel ill, but many do, especially after opening, including the Novaform Memory Foam Mattress Topper, which reportedly 3,400 customers complained off-gassed for days when taken out of the package.

In 2008, a lawsuit was filed against artificial turf purchased by Costco because it contained harmful lead that can come off onto children's hands when they play, exposing them to toxic dust that can be ingested or inhaled as the turf ages and weathers in the sun. Surfing Costco on the Web will show most of the cases against the discount superstore have involved personal injury (a food demonstrator's foot crushed by a flatbed cart), sexual discrimination, organic food fraud and cheating employees and customers out of what was promised, e.g. not enough shrimp in those platters and renewing memberships before needed. But that doesn't mean we aren't getting sick from exposure to the warehouse and its products.

For one thing, many discount shoppers have become accustomed to the stench of polyester, vinyl and other synthetic compounds and phthalates found in most everyday products, from household cleaners to laundry soaps, shampoos, deodorant, nail polish and hair spray, candles, feminine hygiene products, air fresheners, pesticides, bug repellents, and even some stationary and toys.

According to the Committee on Science and Technology, 95 percent of the substances used to give a pleasant scent to these products are derived from petroleum, and prolonged exposure threatens our nervous and immune systems. The substances -- many considered carcinogens like p-dichlorobenzene and ethanol -- have been linked to a menagerie of sicknesses including adult and child cancers, neurological disorders, immune system weakening, asthma, allergies, infertility, miscarriage, hyperactivity and ADD, to name just a few.

Six studies conducted since 2008 show exposure to plastics and flame retardants (such as PVCs in shower curtains, toys, piping and building supplies) poses great harm to the health of both humans and lab animals. The highly recommended steps to avoiding exposure include steering away from plastic food containers and using glass, checking the labels for a "3" or "V" stamp to see if the product contains PVCs, and smelling the items before buying. If the vinyl reeks, leave it on the shelf.

The quandary for the Costco shopper is that almost everything sold by the wholesaler is packaged in monstrous disposable plastic containers, fabricated of polyester and vinyl, and scented or flavored with the use of dangerous chemicals that are often hidden as "trade secrets."

Since the beginning of time, mammals, including humans, have relied on their sense of smell to detect and avoid danger as a survival skill. That shouldn't change. We have been talked out of using this sense by the corporate marketing machine that decides what we can buy at a savings, and in most cases, it includes poisons.

My sense of smell is keener than most. I can detect a nearby fire and skunk spray before any members of my family. If I was on "Top Chef," I probably could sniff most of the ingredients in a dish.

While I'm not offering a scientific analysis of Costco, my mammal smell alarm went off loud and clear, and you should look into it. You, too, might be feeling sick while conducting that weekly shopping chore and not know why. Keeping your foot from being run over by a flatbed cart might be the least of the risks facing the American consumer in search of a needed break.

Luanne Bradley is the senior editor of Ecosalon.com. She also is a contributor to AlterNet, the Examiner and Divine Caroline, and her eco articles have been featured at Huffington Post.
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