Kathleen Schuler, MPH
Dr. Rose Brewer
Senator Bobby Joe Champion
The lack of effective policies to regulate the use of chemicals in everyday consumer products impacts everyone’s health. The Toxic Substances Control Act, the law that regulates industrial chemicals in the U.S., fails to control the flood of toxic chemicals into consumer products, resulting in thousands of little regulated, potentially toxic chemicals ending up in everyday consumer products from hand soap and cleaners to children’s nap mats and clothing. These include hormone-disrupting chemicals such as phthalates, bisphenol A, flame-retardants and more. Widespread exposure to toxic chemicals contributes to rising rates of reproductive problems, developmental disabilities and cancer.
While everyone is exposed to toxic chemicals, communities of color and low-income communities experience unequal exposures. Historical environmental injustices have placed more industrial sites, incinerators, superfund sites and other pollution sources in these communities, with accompanying increased exposure to air, water and soil contamination. So routine exposure to the thousands of chemicals in consumer products is on top of already high environmental exposures and underlying health and economic disparities.
Other factors also contribute to disproportionate environmental impacts for low-income and communities of color. In North Minneapolis, over 75% of the homes were built before 1978, putting local children at higher risk for lead poisoning. Medicaid enrollment data indicates that low-income children are three-times more likely to have elevated blood-lead levels than children from higher income families. Low income families are more likely to live in rental housing, which can be poorly maintained, subjecting families to mold, poor indoor air quality, and insect and rodent infestations. Pesticides are routinely applied to subsidized housing with or without the consent of residents.
Low-income and communities of color also have higher exposures to toxins in consumer products and food. For example, low-income groups had higher levels of urinary bisphenol A (BPA) than higher income groups, likely due to consumption of canned food. Exposure to BPA, a chemical used on food can linings, is linked to higher risk for problems with development and learning. Food dyes frequently used in processed food are associated with hyperactivity and behavioral disorders.  Children of color and low-income children are at higher risk because of the availability of fast food restaurants in their communities and reduced access to healthy whole foods without added dyes.
African American and immigrant populations face unique product exposures. For example, African-American and African-Caribbean women are more likely to use hair products with hormonally active chemical ingredients compared with white women,  which may place them at higher risk for premenopausal breast cancer. Many Somali women use skin-lightening creams, which can contain high amounts of mercury, a brain toxin that can adversely impact the health of fetuses and young children.
Low-income families also encounter barriers in accessing healthier products, including the time or access to information necessary to research safer products. Products free of toxic chemicals are often more expensive and the stores selling them are not located in their neighborhoods. Low-income families might not be able to afford to replace older furniture and electronic products that contain toxic flame-retardants. They also might have increased exposure to phthalates, lead and other chemicals regulated in new products, through purchasing secondhand toys and baby products or cheap products sold at “dollar stores.”
In the absence of federal action to better regulate chemicals, Minnesota has taken action to protect families at all income levels from unnecessary exposures to chemicals found in everyday consumer products. The Minnesota Department of Health has determined that nine chemicals found in children’s products potentially place children’s health at risk. A bill being introduced in the Minnesota legislature, the Toxic Free Kids Act of 2015 would require that manufacturers report to the Pollution Control Agency if they use any of the nine toxic chemicals in their products. The state agencies would then create consumer programs to educate and inform parents about which products contain these chemicals, so they can be better-informed consumers.
The Toxic Free Kids Act won’t solve all of these historical inequities and environmental injustices, but it’s a positive step to protect our children from preventable exposures and lighten the burden on parents trying their best to give their children a healthy start in life. It’s time to protect all of our kids.
Kathleen Schuler, MPH is Co-Director of Healthy Legacy and the Healthy Kids and Families Program Director at Conservation Minnesota.
Dr. Rose Brewer chairs the Board of Directors of Environmental Justice Advocates of Minnesota and teaches African American studies at the University of Minnesota.
Senator Bobby Joe Champion represents SD 59 in the Minnesota legislature.
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