Tuesday, July 29, 2014
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GreenSpace: Don't eat that hat: Toxic chemicals in sports souvenirs

A University of Michigan key ring had 1,230 parts per million of mercury.
A University of Michigan key ring had 1,230 parts per million of mercury.
A University of Michigan key ring had 1,230 parts per million of mercury. Gallery: GreenSpace: Don't eat that hat: Toxic chemicals in sports souvenirs

As the college basketball frenzy known as March Madness under way, a Michigan nonprofit that looks at toxic chemicals in consumer products has been touting its own kooky offshoot - March Badness.

In recent months, it used high definition X-ray fluorescence spectrometry to test for the presence of toxic chemicals in 65 university-themed products - stuff fans buy, from a Duke University toddler basketball outfit to a University of Wisconsin gas-grill cover.

More than 70 percent contained at least one chemical of high concern - lead, mercury, phthalates, or flame retardants.

They found arsenic in key chains, bromine in jerseys, chlorine in a "baby fan gear body suit," antimony in a wallet, and tin in a bobblehead.

To the group that did the testing, HealthyStuff.org, part of the nonprofit Ecology Center, this is a reminder that many consumer products contain chemicals that we might prefer to avoid.

Indeed, for the last seven years, HealthyStuff has screened more than 10,000 consumer products, from big products such as cars to little items such as Mardi Gras beads - from pet chew toys to cell phones - and found much the same thing.

"A lot of the types of products we look at, we see there are alternatives in the marketplace that are healthier," said research director Jeff Gearhart. "We think it's an unnecessary source of exposure."

But is there actual exposure here? Or is this just a cutesy way of revving up social media?

A fan - no matter how fervent or inebriated - is unlikely to commence gnawing on a car mat (a University of Central Florida one contained more than 900,000 parts per million of chlorine) or a canvas chair (a University of Kentucky one contained more than 8,000 parts per million of bromine).

That said, what about the University of Oklahoma water bottle that contained 63,000 ppm of chromium? Or the University of Florida lunch bag that contained 1,978 ppm of lead? Is that likely to get in your sandwich?

As they say in toxicology, "the dose makes the poison."

Anneclaire De Roos, an associate professor in Drexel University's School of Public Health, noted that lead and arsenic are toxic at whatever level you measure them.

But for many of the products, she said, "you really have to ask yourself: 'A toxic chemical may be in there, but does this product really pose a risk to me the way I'm using it, such as wearing it or sitting on it?' "

A jersey with flame retardants in it might present a risk of "dermal exposure" - it might rub off on your skin and be absorbed through that organ. But, she said, the biggest concern is about "things that are going to be ingested or breathed."

In a prepared statement, the American Chemical Council, an industry group, called the report a "publicity stunt," an attempt "to alarm consumers by using flawed science and inappropriate extrapolations to criticize products just because they include chemicals."

It said that chemicals used in everyday products are tested for safety and subject to review by government regulators.

One thing that concerned Gearhart's group was phthalates, chemicals that make plastics flexible but that also mimic male hormones. Of 18 products tested for the chemicals, 16 contained ones banned by the Consumer Product Safety Commission for use in children's toys.

Federal legislation recently was introduced to extend that to all children's products, which advocates applaud. But they also point out: What's to say a child wouldn't start mouthing a jersey? Two of those tested had phthalates.

For Andy Igrejas, national campaign director for the nonprofit advocacy group Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families, testing for toxic chemicals in products is a reminder that "chemical exposures come from unexpected places."

Both groups want reform of the nation's dominant chemical safety law to address this. The nearly 30-year-old Toxic Substances Control Act, or TSCA, is now an issue in Congress. The groups want to find a way for regulatory officials to take into account multiple exposures - especially aggregate exposures of one chemical, but cumulative exposures of many chemicals also are a concern.

If substances cause toxicity in the same way, the exposure could mount, sort of like taking five pills instead of the recommended dose of one. Or how do they interact if one interferes with your hormones and another is linked with cancer?

Industry has opposed the concept, and indeed, it's a knotty issue.

"The trouble is that, a lot of times, the information is not even really available," said Drexel's De Roos. "There's too much uncertainty to put too many chemicals into one risk assessment."

To the advocacy groups, that's exactly the problem.


sbauers@phillynews.com

215-854-5147 @sbauers

www.inquirer.com/greenspace

"GreenSpace" appears every other week, alternating with Art Carey's "Well Being" column.

Sandy Bauers Inquirer GreenSpace Columnist
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