Discount stores often sell products with hazardous chemicals. Low-income shoppers deserve better.
Bravo is the national coordinator for the Campaign for Healthier Solutions. He lives in El Cajon.
The COVID-19 pandemic has shined a spotlight on racial health disparities in the United States, which have, sadly, gotten worse over the past 20 years. One reason for this is that people of color have higher rates of chronic conditions and diseases with links to pollution and chemical exposure, such as asthma and cancer.
Communities of color and people in low-income neighborhoods are disproportionately exposed to toxic chemicals where they live, through their jobs, and also because of where they shop. Six years ago, our coalition of more than 100 health, community and environmental justice organizations tested more than 150 products sold at discount stores and found that 81 percent contained at least one hazardous chemical linked to birth defects, learning disabilities, diabetes and more. Ever since, we’ve been urging these powerful entities to clean up their acts.
Despite years of our campaign and others urging 99 Cents Only Stores, headquartered in Los Angeles, to phase out the most toxic chemicals from products and packaging, they received an “F” for the third year in a row for taking no steps to address this critical issue. This is despite the knowledge that we found lead, with well-known links to serious health risks, in children’s jewelry sold at discount stores. We also found phthalates — which are added to plastic to increase flexibility and which have known connections to reproductive issues — in toys, cosmetics, shower curtains and other products. Yet, in many neighborhoods, there is no place to shop other than these discount retailers.
Leaving aside the beauty products, household cleaning items and children’s toys, discount retailers also undercut supermarkets and perpetuate intentionally food deprived areas, sometimes called “food deserts,” so that there is virtually no fresh food available locally. As a result, 40 percent of sales at these stores go toward food — much of which is highly processed with low nutritional quality, and whose packaging is another potential source of toxic chemicals.
With so many people out of work during the pandemic, and everyone staying close to home due to public health guidelines, discount stores had record sales in 2020. Dollar General reported a 14 percent growth in same-store sales for the last quarter of last year — all to say, people are more dependent on these stores than ever before.
Dollar Tree/Family Dollar was actually one of the most improved companies, going from a D+ in the last report to a C+ last week, primarily because the retailer publicly released both a chemical policy and a commitment to eliminate priority chemicals. The retailer identified 17 priority chemicals or classes of chemicals — including lead, BPA and asbestos in children’s products — that it expected its suppliers to reduce or eliminate from its private-label products by 2020. The company says it has successfully met this goal, but it hasn’t provided any proof.
Dollar General also published a new safer chemicals policy in its 2020 serving others report, which included a commitment to eliminate eight chemicals from its private-label home cleaning and beauty and personal care products by December 2022. No discount retailer has yet adopted a truly comprehensive chemical disclosure or management policy with public benchmarks, so it is impossible to tell whether they are following through with their promises.
Revamping how products are manufactured and distributed to phase out harmful chemicals is no small task. But if discount retailers care at all about the health and well-being of the communities they operate in, or the environmental racism that they are perpetuating, they should reallocate resources and start cleaning up their supply chains immediately.
It’s also good business sense.
By failing to address toxic chemicals through comprehensive policies, dollar stores are making themselves vulnerable to the fate of companies like Mattel, which lost 18 percent of its value after recalling toys with lead paint, or Sigg USA, which went bankrupt after failing to disclose BPA in its water bottles.
Unfortunately, retailers can legally get away with a lot. Federal policy and lack of oversight leaves many harmful chemicals unregulated or underregulated, leaving it up to concerned residents to put pressure on companies to prioritize the health of customers and employees.
There is a growing movement by mainstream retail and manufacturing brands — including Target and Walmart — to respond to consumer demand for safer products with publicly available corporate policies that identify, disclose and replace the most harmful chemicals with safer alternatives. We can’t allow companies serving communities of color and low-income neighborhoods to lag behind.