Toxics: Why we paid a visit to Albertson’s

It’s not this lotion or that shampoo. It’s not just one can or package of food. It’s the toxic chemicals in thousands of products we encounter every day that undermine our health. So: who is responsible?

Albertsons brand product labelOne could argue that Albertson’s store brand of bubble bath, for example, does nothing wrong by allowing the use of a little bit of the preservative methylisothiazolinone (MIT). It’s a “sensitizer”—which means that, with repeated exposure in enough quantity, people become allergic. But it’s not against the law to use, and thousands of other products in the U.S. contain it, and it does work to keep personal care products safe from contamination and spoilage.

Yet some are calling the increasingly common severe dermatitis from MIT an epidemic. One study shows that, in just a couple years, the number of people who get dermatitis doubled. It was called the “allergen of the year” in 2013 by the dermatitis society. And the epidemic probably doesn’t come from one product; it comes from a few of the ten-or-so personal care products that the average person uses each day.

patch test shows allergy to MI

Patch test shows dermatitis caused by MI-containing wet wipe

It may not be the kind of thing you want to soak in, or rub on your baby’s most sensitive parts—that is, if you happen to know the risks. And you can read the tiny print on product labels. And remember: methylisothiazolinone is one among dozens of other toxic chemicals to avoid. Albertson’s bubble bath also contains a formaldehyde-releasing chemical as well as fragrance, which can be made from any of a thousand components, some of which are toxic.

So: Is Albertson’s responsible for ensuring that its store-brand products are safe? They are not chemists. They are not health experts. But they are one of the largest food retailers in the United States, with 2,200 stores and tens of billions in sales each year. They have the power to demand safer formulations of their products. We know it’s true, because we’ve seen companies like WalMart and Target succeed with safer chemical policies.

Delivering a letter to AlbertsonsToday, I hand-delivered a letter to a very nice Albertson’s store manager in Southwest Portland, Oregon. The letter contained a list of store-brand products made with chemicals we know to be hazardous, including MIT. Greg, the manager, received my letter with a mix of friendliness and confusion. He had never heard of this: hazardous chemicals in Albertson’s products? He was a nice guy.

On behalf of Oregon Environmental Council and our members, I asked the manager to pass my concerns along to his employer. I explained that Albertsons can eliminate pounds and pounds of toxics that end up in our water, our air—and our bodies. What’s more, if they insist on safer product formulas, it makes things a lot easier for smaller retailers to make the same change.

Is it my responsibility, as a state nonprofit, to urge this national retailer to make a change? Surely one letter to one store manager will make very little difference. Yet I’m not alone: all across the nation, tens of thousands of individuals and dozens of groups have united, through an effort called “Mind The Store,” to make this request of Albertson’s.

Last year, the nation’s toxic chemicals law was reformed in ways that, over time, will begin to ensure safer products. Individual state laws are also working to protect people. Manufacturers are adopting voluntary policies, as are retailers. And chemists are finding ways to ensure safer alternatives.

Biomonitoring studies show us that nearly every American is exposed to a wide range of chemicals from everyday products that can undermine health. When a problem is this widespread, we need everyone to take part in the solution.

That includes you! Join OEC and our Mind the Store partners in calling on Albertson’s and other major retailers to do their part in ensuring safe products.

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