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Hidden Toxins in Household Items

Beware: Potentially harmful substances can be hiding in common items you hadn't considered as sources of unwanted chemicals.

| November/December 2016

  • Costume Jewelry
    Children's costume jewelry may contain lead, which is toxic in even small doses.
    Photo by iStock
  • Detergent
    Greenshield Organic detergents are made of plant-based ingredients;
    Image courtesy Greenshield Organic
  • Garland
    Some holiday garlands contain chlorine and PVC
    Photo by iStock
  • Mascara
    Organic wear mascara contains no mercury;
    Image courtesy Physicians Formula Cosmetics
  • perfume
    Pour le Monde perfumes are made with essential oils and grain alcohol;
    Image courtesy Pour le Monde
  • Receipt Paper
    Watch out for BPA in receipt paper.
    Photo by iStock

  • Costume Jewelry
  • Detergent
  • Garland
  • Mascara
  • perfume
  • Receipt Paper

We all know to avoid flimsy water bottles (as the thin, flexible plastic can leach undesirable chemicals) and shower curtains made with PVC (which can offgas harmful compounds into a poorly ventilated, confined space). But are you aware that some holiday garlands and other décor frequently include chemicals most of us don’t want in our homes? Or that cheap children’s jewelry may contain lead? 

State of Toxic Affairs

One barrier for consumers who want to avoid buying products packed with toxic chemicals is the lack of federal consumer oversight. As of this writing, no federal laws require manufacturers to fully disclose ingredients in consumer products. Terms such as “proprietary ingredients” and “fragrance” can hide toxins, even in products that are marketed as eco-friendly. Progress is being made in some states: Maine, California, Oregon, Vermont and Washington have passed chemical-use reporting laws that require manufacturers to disclose certain chemicals harmful to babies and children. Such laws are pending in several other states.

However, there’s more work to do, especially as the unintended effects of programs that are intended as eco-positive are beginning to show up in the market. “A big concern is the recycling of waste electronics scrap back into consumer products,” says Jeffrey Gearhart, research director at the Ecology Center, a non-profit environmental organization. “We are seeing recycled electronic casing and cable insulation showing up in holiday decorations, vinyl flooring, Mardi Gras beads and vinyl outdoor products like garden hoses. Waste electronics are being sent to China. But in return we are getting hazardous products containing dangerous chemicals like lead, plasticizers and flame retardants.”

Trying to avoid toxic chemicals in mass-produced products can be difficult — and sometimes nearly impossible. However, we’ve started some of the work by identifying five sources of toxic chemicals in commonly available products that you might not have previously considered. Read on to discover unwanted substance sources that you might not already know about — but that may adversely affect your health, your home and the environment. 

Lead in Costume Jewelry

Be wary of inexpensive jewelry marketed for adults, teens and children typically sold in supermarkets, pharmacies, dollar stores and other retailers. A 2012 report by, the research arm of the environmental nonprofit Ecology Center, found lead over the allowable limit in 27 percent of the costume jewelry they tested from major retailers, including Burlington Coat Factory, Walmart, Kohl’s, Big Lots and Target. It’s important to note that scientists do not consider any level of lead safe, and that even small levels of lead can be harmful to a child’s developing brain. California enacted a law restricting the amount of lead in jewelry. However, stores in Los Angeles were cited for selling lead-containing jewelry and hair clips, even some labeled “lead-free” or “in compliance with lead standards,” according to a report filed by the California Department of Toxic Substances Control and the Center for Environmental Health. 
Problem: Lead is highly toxic, with serious health effects, and it can be toxic in very low doses. Pregnant women and young children are particularly at risk. Lead can lead to hypertension, kidney and reproductive problems in adults. Even low levels can cause a multitude of harms in children, including behavioral and learning problems and much more. Young children playing with toxin-laden jewelry may put it in their mouths or swallow it. Calcium can help prevent lead poisoning by decreasing gastrointestinal absorption, but lead avoidance should be the first approach. If you suspect lead exposure, see your doctor or contact your public health department.

Natural alternatives: Consider jewelry made from sustainably sourced, untreated wood or well-sourced, high-quality sterling silver. Check out Healthy Happy Tot for more suggestions. 
Tip: Look for the warning: “This jewelry may contain lead, which has been banned in California.” (Exact wording may vary.) 

Chlorine in Holiday Garlands 

 In 2013, researchers at tested 19 beaded holiday garlands from six national stores and found 42 percent contained chlorine at levels that suggest the use of chlorine flame retardants or PVC, in turn a source of phthalates, some of which may be carcinogenic. What’s more, in a 2014 study, researchers reported finding one or more chemicals linked to serious health concerns in more than two-thirds of 69 tested seasonal holiday products, including beaded and tinsel garlands, artificial wreaths and greenery, stockings, figurines and other tabletop decorations, and gift bags. 
Problem: Chlorine content is a good indication of the presence of other chemicals. “Chlorine found in products can indicate the presence of hazardous flame retardants that are based on chlorine chemistry, as well as polyvinyl chloride (PVC), otherwise known as vinyl,” Gearhart says. 

Natural alternatives: “For eco-friendly garlands, recycled tissue paper and wool felt decorations are beautiful alternatives,” says Monica Garg Singhal, owner of “Repurposing evergreen trimmings from local tree farms also makes lovely natural garlands. In general, avoid glittery décor; go for vintage holiday inspirations, and a handmade touch whenever possible.”  

Tips: found low toxicity levels in most wood garlands. You can also create natural garlands by stringing popcorn and cranberries, which can be composted. 

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