Saving Money at Discount Stores Could Cost You Your Health

An investigation has found that 81 percent of products sold at “dollar stores” contain hazardous chemicals.

These bath tub appliques were made in China and purchased at a Houston dollar store. Testing showed they contain phthalates. (Photo: Campaign for Healthier Solutions)


Feb 4, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Padma Nagappan is a multimedia journalist who writes about the environment, renewable energy, sustainability, agriculture, and biotechnology.

Earrings, bracelets, pencil pouches, and silly straws—those seemingly innocuous products that we buy on impulse at discount “dollar stores”—could contain dangerous levels of phthalates, lead, or polyvinyl chloride, according to a report released Wednesday.

Such outlets tend to be located in low-income areas that often are already exposed to high levels of pollution.

Researchers found that 81 percent of dollar store products tested, including such common household items as bath tub mats and table covers, had at least one hazardous chemical. Researchers discovered that half the products, manyof them made in China, contained two or more chemicals that can cause cancer, birth defects, or learning disabilities.

Campaign for Healthier Solutions, a coalition of more than 100 health, community, and environmental justice organizations, conducted the investigation.

The group tested 164 products from the four largest dollar store chains—Dollar General, Dollar Tree, Family Dollar, and 99 Cents—at locations across the United States. Combined, the four chains operate more stores than Walmart, with total annual sales of $36 billion.

“These stores get a lot of products from places like China, and many are not even tested,” said Jose Bravo, national coordinator for the campaign. “Regretfully, in the U.S, people have to get sick before testing is done, and the government can’t monitor everything, so only about 200 chemicals out of some 80,000 have been examined, and just a handful have been banned.”

The report authors suggest that when regulations fall short, the dollar stores need to follow Walmart and Target’s and adopt polices to phase out hazardous chemicals and require suppliers to disclose what goes into their products.

Three of the four dollar stores cited in the report that responded to inquiries insisted that they have policies in place to test or monitor products in line with safety guidelines.

“Our company invests in a significant amount of independent testing to ensure our supplier products meet all safety and legal standards,” said a Dollar Tree spokesperson. “We are in the process of reviewing the items listed in today’s report and our compliance testing results.”

Family Dollar said it monitors all products to ensure compliance with regulations. Dollar General said it uses third-party testing labs to screen all directly imported products for compliance and requires all its suppliers to certify that their products are in line with safety standards.

“The allegations raised by the Campaign for Healthier Solutions are in direct conflict with Dollar General’s well-established standards and practices,” the company said in a statement.

Nevertheless, Bravo said phthalates were the chemicals most frequently found in the products tested, followed by polyvinyl chloride (or PVC, which can also contain phthalates), lead, and chlorine.

“We found chlorine in astronomical amounts—400,000 parts per million,” he said. Excessive exposure to chlorine can lead to skin and eye irritation and affect the lungs.

Bravo said he has reached out to the CEOs of all four companies, seeking to bring them to the table with environmental scientists to discuss how they can make changes.

When regulations don’t do the job of protecting consumers, companies have to raise the bar, said Steven Taylor, campaigns manager for Coming Clean, which contributed to the report.

“The issue isn’t just whether the dollar store chains are complying with regulations or not, but that the existing laws and regulations aren’t protecting people, and the chains can and need to do more than the very minimal requirements that the regulations provide,” Taylor said.