(Beyond Pesticides, July 22, 2016) This week, Walmart released the names of eight chemicals, including one pesticide, classified as High Priority Chemicals (HPCs), which it has asked suppliers to remove from their products. The HPCs are a subset of Walmart’s list of Priority Chemicals (PCs), which is compiled from chemicals identified as hazardous by a number of state, national, and international authorities. In 2013, Walmart released a Sustainable Chemistry Policy and pledged to increase transparency of product ingredients, advance safer formulations of products, and to attain U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)’s Safer Choice certification for Walmart’s own private brand products. After three years, Walmart has not hit the mark on many of its stated goals.
The transparency provision of the Sustainable Chemistry Policy requires all suppliers to provide full online ingredient disclosure beginning January 2015 and Walmart Priority Chemicals on packaging beginning January 2018. Walmart says that 78% of suppliers responding reported disclosure for all products. For their goal of advancing safer formulations of products, Walmart focused on reducing the HPCs.
Importantly, seven of the eight high priority chemicals are undisclosed so-called “inert” ingredients in pesticide products, which should be disclosed under the policy. However, the disclosure occurs through the “supplier’s” website, and these ingredients do not appear to be revealed. The eight high priority chemicals are [* indicates use as an undisclosed “inert” ingredient in pesticide products]: propylparaben* and butylparaben (paraben family of preservatives used by the food, pharmaceutical, and personal care product industries), nonylphenol ethoxylates (NPEs)* (surfactants used in industrial cleaning products, processes, and paints), formaldehyde* (mainly used in production of resins, such as particle board and coatings), dibutyl phthalate* (plasticizer and an additive to adhesives and printing inks), diethyl phthalate* (plasticizer), triclosan (an antimicrobial disinfectant and thus a pesticide active ingredient), and toluene* (a solvent used in making paints, paint thinners, fingernail polish, lacquers, adhesives, and rubber and in some printing and leather tanning processes.).
Walmart reported a reduction in the total weight of HPCs and PCs in products sold (total pounds of HPCs going out the door) — HPCs dropped by 95%, and PCs dropped by 45%. Frequency of use (number of products on store shelves that contain HPCs) did not have such a reduction, leaving consumers vulnerable to the effects of these dangerous chemicals through a broader exposure route. Overall, the percent of products containing HPCs dropped by only 3% (to 16%), while the percent of suppliers using HPCs actually increased to 39%. The percent of products containing PCs also went up one percentage point, to 80%.
Even exposure to small amounts of toxic chemicals can have dangerous sublethal effects. Triclosan, which is one of the eight high priority chemicals that Walmart has singled out, will still be allowed in toothpaste products for treating plaque. Allowing consumers to be exposed to this chemical is unacceptable, as triclosan is associated with health effects such as endocrine disruption, cancer, impacts on fetal development and bacterial resistance.
In the past, public pressure, led by Beyond Pesticides and other groups, has contributed to growing awareness of the dangers of triclosan’s use. As a result, several major manufacturers have already taken steps to remove the chemical –including Johnson & Johnson, Procter & Gamble and Colgate-Palmolive, which reformulated its popular line of liquid soaps, but continues to formulate Total ® toothpaste with triclosan. Minnesota became the first state to ban the toxic antibacterial, announcing that retailers would no longer be able to sell cleaning products that contain triclosan, effective January 2017. In June 2015, the agency responsible for chemical oversight in the European Union announced that triclosan is toxic and bioaccumulative, and will be phased-out for hygienic uses and replaced by more suitable alternatives. According to the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA), “[N]o safe use could be demonstrated for the proposed use of triclosan.”
In a statement to Bloomberg, Mike Schade, who heads the retail campaign at Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families, made clear that Walmart should expand its list of high-priority chemicals, given its power “to transform the marketplace and bring safer products into the hands of consumers across the world.” Walmart has created a system of measuring and tracking chemicals, but has fallen short in taking real, meaningful action to reduce the number of products on its shelves that contain those dangerous chemicals.
Walmart has also reported that it has hit snags in making progress with Safer Choice certification, and has not released any quantitative data as of this writing. In order to earn a Safer Choice Standard label, products must have chemical ingredient formulations that “function in making the product work,” which allows formulators “to use those ingredients with the lowest hazard in their functional class.” Safer Chemical Ingredients are listed on EPAs website.
Beyond Pesticides advocates for products that eliminate ingredients linked to human health or environmental hazards. The recently amended chemical safety law, the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), embraces a risk assessment approach to regulating toxic chemicals, similar to the regulation of pesticides under the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA), which has proven to allow the unnecessary use of toxic chemicals under a “health-based safety standard” —uses for which there are safer, less-toxic practices and products. Risk assessment fails to look at chemical mixtures, synergistic effects, certain health endpoints (such as endocrine disruption), disproportionate effects to vulnerable population groups, and regular noncompliance with product label directions. In the end, risks may be allowed that are unnecessary, given the availability of less or non-toxic alternatives. These deficiencies contribute to its severe limitations in defining real world poisoning, as captured by epidemiologic studies in the database. Beyond Pesticides has long criticized risk assessment methodology, encouraging an alternatives assessment which creates a regulatory trigger to adopt alternatives and drive the market to go green.
Amendments to TSCA, adopted by Congress last month, also limits, or preempts, state authority to restrict substances that are under review, diminishing the right of states and communities to establish protective laws, regulations, and standards in the face of involuntary toxic chemical exposure.
For consumers who are concerned about the safety of the ingredients in products they use, the Safer Choice label is a limited, but important, step in improving consumer transparency and education. We encourage all consumers to read the label of all cleaning products and opt to choose products that carry the Safer Choice label. Click here to see examples of Safer Choice Products. You can also visit Beyond Pesticides’ Safer Choice page for other non-toxic suggestions on how to avoid hazardous home, garden, community, and food use pesticides.
All unattributed positions and opinions in this piece are those of Beyond Pesticides.