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Toxic Tuesdays

Metals & Preterm Births

Toxic Tuesdays

CHEJ highlights several toxic chemicals and the communities fighting to keep their citizens safe from harm.

Metals & Preterm Births

Over 10% of births worldwide are preterm, meaning delivery occurs earlier than 37 weeks of pregnancy. It is a leading cause of neonatal mortality, and evidence suggests that exposure to heavy metals from the environment could be a risk factor. In the US, a major source of exposure to metals is private well water. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) sets standards and regulates levels of contaminants in public drinking water, but private well water isn’t regulated. This means private well water – which 13% of the US population receives drinking water from – is vulnerable to contamination. Indeed, studies have found metal contamination in private wells and that people who receive drinking water from private wells have more of these metals in their systems.

A recently published study set out to evaluate if exposure to toxic metals from private well water increased the risk of preterm birth. Because North Carolina (NC) has the largest state population using private well water, the researchers studied live births in NC that occurred from 2003-2015. From birth certificates, they could collect each pregnant person’s address at the time they delivered their babies. The researchers also used the NC-WELL database, which is a database of over 100,000 geocoded well water tests conducted from 1998-2019 from almost all census tracts in North Carolina. These tests include measurements of the concentrations of metals. The NC-WELL database allowed the researchers to assign each pregnant person’s address an estimate of their exposure to private well water and the concentrations of metals measured in that well water. Ultimately, the study included over 1.3 million births. This large sample size allowed the researchers to determine if increased metals in well water was associated with preterm birth.

The study found that people living in census tracts where over 25% of NC-WELL water tests exceeded EPA’s safe standard for cadmium had 11% higher odds of preterm birth than people who did not. People living in census tracts where over 25% of NC-WELL water tests exceeded EPA’s safe standard for lead had 10% higher odds of preterm birth than people who did not. These results indicate that cadmium and lead in private well water were each associated with preterm birth.

The study then modeled how the exposure to mixtures of metals was associated with preterm birth. This is particularly important because few studies assess the risks of multiple chemical exposures, even though it is highly likely people are exposed to more than one chemical at a time. When considering exposure to a mixture of seven metals present in private well water, the researchers found that exposure to the combination of cadmium and lead was associated with preterm birth.

In the US and NC, Black and Native American people have much higher rates of preterm birth than white people. Racial disparities in exposure to toxic chemicals could influence racial disparities in birth outcomes. As the study states plainly, “This is especially pertinent to consider when evaluating private well water-based exposure in NC, as structural environmental racism has led to poor and minority communities being more likely to rely on private well water.” This study found that when considering exposure to a mixture of seven metals present in private well water, the effect on preterm birth was most extreme for Native American people. It was associated with 20% higher odds of preterm birth for Native American people. The researchers say this disproportionate effect of metal exposure on preterm birth reflects the multiple environmental hazards and contaminants disproportionately forced on Native American people over several centuries. They also note that other studies have found that Native American pregnant people have higher levels of toxic metals in their systems than the national average.

This study used publicly available birth information and private well water testing to create a large cohort to study the effects of metals in private well water on preterm birth. The results make clear that private well water needs more regulation in order to ensure the levels of dangerous metals like cadmium and lead do not put people at risk. The results also make clear that not all people bear the same risks of exposure or health effects of exposure. People of color bear a disproportionate burden because they are more likely to receive private well water, which may contribute to disproportionate rates of preterm births.

For more information, CHEJ has previously written about the health effects of leadcadmium, and the importance of considering the health effects of exposure to mixtures of chemicals.

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Backyard Talk

WARNING: Vinyl rain coats chock full of hazardous chemicals

With the summer only a few weeks away, many parents are going out and buying new rain gear — but parents may unwittingly be exposing our most vulnerable children to lead, cadmium, and even phthalates, chemicals so toxic they have been banned in toys and baby products.

A brand new investigation of vinyl rain gear by the EcoWaste Coalition found elevated levels of lead and cadmium in vinyl raincoats marketed to children. Chemicals that can permanently disrupt the brain. Shockingly, 70% of raingear they tested contained elevated levels of lead or cadmium.

This follows a similar report I authored last year which also found high levels of toxic chemicals in children’s vinyl raincoats and rain boots, including Disney branded rain gear.  This time, a Mickey Mouse raincoat contained 2,255 ppm of lead in it.

Chemical detectives.

The EcoWaste coalition, a public interest network of community, church, school, environmental and health groups based in the Philippines, used an X-Ray Fluorescence spectrometer (XRF) to test rain gear for the presence of heavy metals such as lead and cadmium. The XRF device is also able to identify products made out of PVC, as a high chlorine reading from the device indicates the product is most likely made out of vinyl (vinyl being the #1 chlorinated plastic in the world not to mention the #1 use of chlorine gas).

The organization went out and tested 33 pieces of rain gear: 25 raincoats, 5 umbrellas, and 3 pairs of rain boots. The products were purchased from discount stores at shopping malls in the Philippines.

High levels of lead and cadmium in children’s vinyl raincoats.

The group found:

“Of the 25 samples of raincoats that are mostly made of polyvinyl chloride (PVC) plastic and featuring favorite cartoon characters, 11 had lead from 292 to 15,500 ppm with the following as the five most loaded with lead:
1.  An egg yellow “Tweety” medium raincoat with 15,500 ppm
2.  Another egg yellow “Tweety” small raincoat with 14,100 ppm
3.  A light yellow “Mickey Mouse” small raincoat with 2,255 ppm
4.  A bright yellow “Yikang” two-piece large raincoat with 2,090 ppm
5.  A blue “Tasmanian Devil” raincoat with 1,753 ppm

Of these 25 raincoats, 13 were found laced with cadmium with a green “Haiyan Ben 10” extra large raincoat containing 717 ppm cadmium.

Of the five umbrellas tested, lead was detected on the “Hello Kitty” design of two mini-umbrellas at 122 ppm and 275 ppm each.

Of the three pairs of boots, “Pengi” green boots and “Panda” red boots were found laden with cadmium amounting to 398 ppm and 523 ppm, respectively.”

Children may in turn be exposed to these hazardous metals, as studies have documented they may readily leach out of vinyl children’s products. Lead and cadmium are used to “stabilize” the product.

Phthalates in vinyl raincoats and rain boots

You may think, well that’s the Philippines, surely the US government wouldn’t allow such hazardous chemicals here, right?

Wrong.

As I mentioned above, less than a year ago CHEJ and the Empire State Consumer Project released a report investigating hazardous chemical additives in children’s back-to-school supplies. Among the products we tested were children’s vinyl raincoats and rain boots.

Our investigation found high levels of phthalates in the rain gear we tested, at levels much higher than what’s legal for kids’ toys. But just because the products aren’t toys, it’s totally legal for industry to use them in children’s products. Insane, right?! Phthalates are considered to be endocrine disrupting chemicals, are linked to asthma and reproductive effects, and according to the federal government children face the highest exposures to these poisonous substances. It’s nothing short of outrageous!

What can we do about it?

Look, I shouldn’t have to even say this. We shouldn’t have to worry whether your children’s raincoat contains these harmful chemicals. But sadly, we do.

As consumers, the best way to avoid these hazardous substances is to not purchase vinyl rain-gear in the first place as study after study has found hazardous chemicals in and leaching from vinyl. Whether it be phthalates, lead, cadmium, organotins, or even BPA. And perhaps even worse, the entire lifecycle of vinyl is nothing short of an environmental nightmare, releasing other highly hazardous substances including vinyl chloride, ethylene dichloride, dioxins, mercury, and PCB’s.

So next time you’re out shopping for a children’s raincoat or rain boots, make sure it’s not made out of vinyl/PVC plastic. Look for rain gear promoted as PVC-free. Our Back-to-School Guide to PVC-free School Supplies is a great resource, as it features listings PVC-free rain gear and other children’s products in over 40 product categories. Also — be sure to check out our wallet-sized version for shopping on the go.

It’s time to Mind the Store.

However, we can’t just shop our way out of this problem. Enough is enough! That’s why CHEJ is part of the national Mind the Store Campaign, which is urging the top ten retailers to take action on the worst of the worst chemicals, including these very same ones.

Learn more and take action at www.mindthestore.org

Categories
Backyard Talk

Warning: PVC Packaging Laden with Toxic Cadmium




A brand new report by the Toxics in Packaging Clearinghouse has documented elevated levels of toxic cadmium and lead in PVC packaging sold by dollar-store discount retailers.  They found that:

This is the symbol of PVC packaging. Just remember Bad News Comes in 3’s – Don’t Buy PVC!

“Almost 40 percent of imported PVC packaging of products tested, sold by discount retail chains, was found to violate state toxics laws… These packages contained cadmium or lead, which are restricted by laws in 19 states due to toxicity.” – TPCH press release

“Packaging in violation of state laws is likely not one-time sourcing or production mistakes, but rather appears pervasive in imported PVC packaging,” – Kathleen Hennings of Iowa Department of Natural Resources.”

PVC packaging violates laws in 19 states.

No less than nineteen states have laws that prohibit the sale or distribution of packaging containing intentionally added cadmium, lead, mercury, and hexavalent chromium, and set limits on the incidental concentration of these materials in packaging. The purpose? To prevent the use of toxic heavy metals in packaging materials that enter landfills, incinerators, recycling streams, and ultimately, the environment.  The Toxics in Packaging Clearinghouse has been working to implement and enforce these laws.

In their latest report released this past Friday, a total of 61 flexible PVC packaging samples were screened using XRF technology. 39% of the packaging samples failed the screening test for cadmium and in one instance, also for lead. All the failed packaging samples were imported, mostly from China.

Packaging that failed the screening tests was used for children’s products, pet supplies, personal care, household items, home furnishings, hardware, and apparel.  The products were purchased at eight retail chains across America.  Six of the eight retail chains operate at least 500 locations each across 35 or more states.

Not the first time PVC packaging contaminated with toxic metals

This isn’t the first time the Toxics in Packaging Clearinghouse has documented PVC packaging laden with toxic heavy metals.  In 2007, they published a report which found sixty-one percent of the PVC packages tested were not in compliance with state laws due to the use of cadmium and/or lead. In 2009 they published a follow up report which found that all packaging samples failing for cadmium content were flexible PVC, and over 90 percent of these were imported.

Other studies have documented other chemicals of concern in PVC packaging, including phthalates, organotins, bisphenol A (BPA), and adipates.  Unfortunately, these were not tested for in the brand new study, and are also likely lurking in PVC packaging at retailers.

Is cadmium the new lead?

In recent years, the vinyl chemical industry has been moving away from lead as a stabilizer, but apparently has been replacing lead with cadmium and organotins.

There’s a body of evidence that cadmium may be the new lead. Like lead, cadmium has been linked to learning problems in school children, which are on the rise.  A recent study by researchers from Harvard found children with higher cadmium levels are three times more likely to have learning disabilities and participate in special education.

Our friends at SAFER have compiled lots of great information on cadmium, including a summary of cadmium’s health concerns.

Just Remember – Bad News Comes in 3’s, Don’t Buy PVC

Thankfully, it’s not too hard for consumers to identify and avoid PVC/vinyl packaging, to help reduce your exposure to cadmium and the other toxic additives commonly found in vinyl.

One way to be sure if the packaging of a product is made from PVC is to look for the number “3” inside or the letter “V” underneath the universal recycling symbol.   If it is, that means it’s made out of the poison plastic.  That’s why we say Bad News Comes in 3’s – Don’t Buy PVC!

Not sure? Call the manufacturer or retailer and ask them directly.

Have some PVC packaging? Return it to the manufacturer or retailer and demand they go PVC-free!

To help you remember, watch this animated video we created a few years ago– Sam Suds and the Case of PVC, the Poison Plastic.