More Than Half of Dollar Store Items Tested Contain Toxic Chemicals

Health + Wellness
Major discount retailers in the U.S. and Canada: Dollar Tree, Family Dollar, Dollar General, Five Below and 99 Cents Only Stores
Major discount retailers in the U.S. and Canada: Dollar Tree, Family Dollar, Dollar General, Five Below and 99 Cents Only Stores. Ecology Center Healthy Stuff Lab

Discount or dollar stores are sometimes the only choice for people living in low-income neighborhoods without access to larger grocery stores. But are these cheaper products safe?

A report released April 12 from the Campaign for Healthier Solutions found that more than half of products tested from the leading dollar stores in the U.S. and Canada contained “chemicals of concern” like lead, Bisphenol A (BPA) or Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS) that pose a known or suspected risk to human health or the environment. 

“We tested and found chemicals that are linked to everything from childhood obesity to learning disabilities,” Campaign for Healthier Solutions national coordinator José Bravo told EcoWatch. 

Chemicals of Concern

The Campaign for Healthier Solutions is a project of Coming Clean and the Environmental Justice and Health Alliance. The campaign commissioned the Ecology Center Healthy Stuff Lab to test 226 products from the major discount retailers in the U.S. and Canada: Dollar Tree, Family Dollar, Dollar General, Five Below and 99 Cents Only Stores. The items included 33 food cans and 22 packages of microwavable popcorn. All of the items were purchased in 2021, from stores in Michigan, Pennsylvania, California, New Mexico, Washington, Maine, Texas and Ontario, Canada. In addition to testing the products, the lab also tested 28 receipts. 

What they found was that 53 percent of the products contained at least one chemical of concern. Examples included:

  1. PFAS in the packaging coating of 100 percent of the popcorn tested.
  2. Bisphenol S in 100 percent of the receipts.
  3. The PFAS known as PTFE in a 10-inch frying pan from Family Dollar.
  4. BPA-based epoxy in canned vegetables sold at Dollar Tree.
  5. PVC in the coating of a can of Campbell’s Chicken & Star Shape Pasta sold at Five Below. 

One particularly worrying finding was the prevalence of dangerous chemicals and heavy metals in products marketed to children. For example, a kids musical toy car from a Dollar Tree in Texas had 174,000 parts per million of lead in the solder. Lead was also present in the solder of Disney-and Marvel-themed headphones sold at Five Below. 

Fake teeth and lips sold at Dollar Tree and Dollar General contained PVC, a plastic that can leach heavy metals and phthalates. Ortho phthalate plasticizers were also found in a Disney hair set and themed headphones from Five Below.  

“No child should be exposed to phthalates in any household products, and it is especially concerning to see phthalates present in toys specifically marketed to them,” director of the Healthy Children Project at the Learning Disabilities Association of America Tracy Gregoire said in a Coming Clean press release. “These chemicals are linked to lifelong learning challenges, ADHD and lower IQ.”

Environmental Justice 

The Campaign for Healthier Solutions doesn’t focus on dollar stores because they are necessarily more likely to sell products with toxic chemicals. Rather, they are frequently located in communities that are already exposed to too much pollution and too little healthy food. 

Dollar stores target areas commonly referred to as “food deserts,” though Bravo takes issue with this term.

“We don’t call them food deserts because I live in San Diego, California, and the desert is beautiful and the desert doesn’t intentionally impact your health,” Bravo said. “It’s a wonderful place. So we call them intentionally food deprived areas.” 

These intentionally food deprived areas also tend to be low-income neighborhoods or communities of color that are already more likely to be exposed to fossil fuel extraction, pipelines, chemical plants, waste dumps, and other polluting activities. One study in Massachusetts found that communities where at least 15 percent of the population was not white faced more than 20 times the environmental burden of white communities, according to a 2015 report from the Campaign for Healthier Solutions. 

“Low-income communities and communities of color, from which dollar stores draw much of their profits, cannot afford additional toxic exposures,” the 2015 report said. “These stores are in a unique position to significantly benefit the health and welfare of their customer base, and grow and benefit their own businesses, by providing products free of dangerous chemicals.”

The urgency of action on the part of these stores has only increased since the coronavirus pandemic, as more people have turned to them to stay within budget. As of August 2021, visits to Dollar General had risen by 32 percent compared to before the pandemic, as The Washington Post reported at the time. At the time the article was published, there were more than 34,000 dollar stores in the U.S., meaning they had more locations than Walmart, Starbucks and McDonald’s combined. 

‘Good Neighbors’ 

Bravo said the point of the campaign was not to get rid of dollar stores or to motivate people to boycott them. 

“What we’re talking about is for them to be good neighbors and good businesses in our communities because like I said, in many instances, they’re the only choice where people can go buy food,” Bravo said. 

In the seven years since the Campaign for Healthier Solutions published their initial report on toxic chemicals in dollar store products, Bravo has seen “light years” worth of progress in addressing the issue. While 53 percent of products tested still contained chemicals of concern in 2022, that number was 80 percent of 164 products tested in 2015. Further, when the campaign has gone back and tested items that previously tested positive for lead, they have found that they tested negative the second time.

“They are not going to claim that it was us,” Bravo said, “we’ll claim that it was us.” 

Bravo said that Dollar Tree had the most proactive response. It now has a list of 20 priority chemicals that it seeks to avoid in its stock. It has outright banned the intentional use of 17 of these chemicals, including lead and asbestos in children’s items. Further, it said it would ban the intentional use of PFAS chemicals and phthalates from food and beverage products by 2023, the intentional use of PFAS in pet food by 2024 and the intentional use of PVC in children’s items by 2024 as well.

“Dollar Tree encourages our suppliers of national brand products and private label goods to find safer alternatives to the chemicals listed on our priority chemical list and continue to innovate and provide options for safe, effective products that meet the expectations of our consumers,” the company said in the policy. 

Dollar General is also working to improve its inventory, but the campaign has not heard anything from Five Below and 99 Cents Only Stores were in conversation with the campaign early last year but have since ceased all communications. 

While some discount stores delay taking action, Bravo said there are things consumers can do to protect themselves. 

First of all, they can buy products that don’t have toxic ingredients, such as paper, pencils or crayons. They can refrain from picking products from aisles that smell strongly of plastic. Finally, they can avoid greasy foods, because chemicals like BPA tend to bind themselves more readily to these types of foods.

“When you are buying food, just make sure that you’re buying the best type of most healthy food that you can,” Bravo said. 

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