Happy Valentine’s Day from CEH!
As we entered the recent holiday toy-buying season, the California Attorney General’s Office and the Public Health Trust asked us to do a few things: (1) get lead-tainted toys out of the hands of kids, (2) teach parents to be vigilant about lead in toys and more generally in vinyl products, and (3) check major stores to see if our work over the last few years has actually gotten leady toys off the shelves.
With their support, we conducted fifteen toy testing drives at Bay Area churches, nonprofits, community centers, flea markets, and fire departments. (Here‘s a local news story on one of our more popular events.) When we weren’t testing toys for community members, we were at stores, dragging a fine-toothed comb across the shelves of big box retailers, looking for items similar to those we’ve found contaminated with lead in the past.
We have now tested over thirteen hundred items and found on store shelves only eleven that exceed the lead limits set by new federal legislation governing lead in children’s products. This is a monumental improvement from last year, when we couldn’t walk into a big-box retailer without tripping over a leady toy. (Pictured here is one of the few violators we found, a Just Girlz doll whose shoes contain 25 times the new legal limit of lead.)
The change is several victories in one. Of course, it keeps another source of lead away from our kids. It also shows that companies are changing the way they make toys, like Curious George, who had a vinyl (and leady) face last year. This year, George’s face is made from the same plush material as the rest of him. To keep lead out of their toys, manufacturers are reducing the amount of toxic vinyl they use. It’s good news for the health of consumers, workers, and communities near places where vinyl is made and disposed of.
And don’t forget: this sweeping change in the marketplace shows that smart, targeted work by the nonprofit sector, a successful media campaign, and a widespread public outcry can force powerful companies to sacrifice a few pennies’ worth of profit in order to protect people’s health. Our work isn’t done, but we hope you share our excitement at landmark successes like these.
CEH has been placed on the 2009 ballot of causes that Working Assets/CREDO supports. In case you're unfamiliar with Working Assets, they are a telecommunications company that donates exclusively to progressive nonprofits, allowing their customers to vote for grant recipients from a small pool of organizations.
You can read more about the Working Assets ballot here.
If you are a Working Assets customer, please be sure to cast your vote for CEH. And tell your friends. . .
What's as inspiring as seeing a night-and-day change that gets lead-tainted toys out of stores in just one year? Knowing that so many CEH supporters trust us to convert their hard-earned dollars into concrete, fundamental change that protects families across the country.
We're humbled to know that you choose, even in this uncertain economy, to support our work, our vision, and our results. As our way of thanking you, we're putting the finishing touches on a long-term plan to ensure that we continue getting the biggest bang for your buck.
Like all of our allies in the non-profit world, CEH is bracing for difficult times ahead. Our plans have us prepared to meet those challenges while still winning the victories that make a difference in your life, like changing the way toys are made.
Thank you for being there for CEH. With your help, we'll return the favor for years to come.
Federal Law Bans Lead Threats to Kids, but Businesses Get One-Year Exemption from Testing
A new federal law to end toxic threats from lead and phthalates in children's products is scheduled to go into force today, February 10. But the law, the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act (CPSIA), has many small business owners and second-hand retailers worried about how to satisfy new testing requirements.
Wal-Mart and Toys R Us can afford to test their products for lead and phthalates, but small companies that make or sell children's products (including toys, clothes, shoes, books, and many other items) are concerned that the testing requirements may put them out of business.
The Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) has stated that it intends to enforce the law where it can have the most impact. In other words, the understaffed agency won't check every little store in the country; they will focus on major retailers who sell millions of children's products each month.
The CPSC has also postponed testing requirements for one year, even though the law requires businesses to meet the new lead limits as of today. It's a mixed message: businesses are barred from selling products that contain lead, but they are not required to test their products to make sure they meet that requirement.
CEH supports the law and urges the CPSC to implement it in a way that protects all children. But we also believe it's vital to protect small businesses.
Congress and the CPSC can do both. Here's one example of how: when CEH found high levels of lead in imported candies made by many companies, including Mars, Hersheys and dozens of smaller candy makers, we negotiated a legal agreement that ended these lead threats and required the larger companies to help pay for the smaller companies' testing costs.
We'll keep an eye on how the law gets implemented, and we'll keep you up-to-date on what that means for you and your family.
In the meantime, CEH will remain vigilant. We'll monitor store shelves for lead threats to children, we'll use California's law to end these threats, and we'll let you know when we find problem products. For example, just last week, we found that these stuffed Valentines toys exceed the new legal lead limit fifteen times over. Rite Aid and Longs (part of the CVS Drug Store chain) say they have pulled the toys from their shelves, thanks to our work. But it's time for companies to keep these products off their shelves in the first place.
Nearly 500 people in 43 states have gotten sick from salmonella contamination in peanuts and peanut products. Worse yet, at least eight deaths may be linked to the outbreak. Who is at fault? Much of the responsibility lies with the Peanut Corporation of America (PCA), a Lynchburg, Virginia company that sells peanuts, peanut paste, peanut butter, and other ingredients used in food products. Our lax federal food regulator -- the FDA -- and our industrial food system are also to blame.
If you're not appalled, read this carefully: Salmonella had previously been found at the PCA plant at least twelve times before the outbreak, but the company failed to clean up and keep contaminated products off the market. We can (and will, in a minute) discuss farming, regulation, and the industrial food system, but when you get down to it, this is simply another case of corporate profits running roughshod over public health.
In response to the outbreak, Consumers Union has called on President Obama to appoint a new FDA commissioner to address our vulnerable food safety system. Jean Halloran, Food Policy Initiatives Director at Consumers Union told reporters, "FDA must inspect food production facilities more frequently than once every 10 years." That's right: ten years is the average span that major food processing plants can expect to wait between inspections.
Another contributor to this tragedy: our intercontinental, industrial, corporate-run food system. While any improperly handled food can be contaminated, a food system that relies on mega-corporations like PCA and others is more likely to cause massive outbreaks when contamination occurs.
CEH advocates for regionally-based food systems, which avoid the systemic dangers of the centralized, industrial food supply. Local food supplies also have a safety factor that industrial food production can't match -- the face-to-face relationships that local food systems foster between producers and consumers. Local farmers have an obligation to real, local customers, not to faceless shareholders.
So how can you keep your family safe? Here are a few tips:
- Know the ingredients in the foods you buy. Hundreds of products containing peanut ingredients have been recalled. Check the list here.
- A google news search for "peanut recall" can also uncover up-to-date articles that sometimes contain information on recalls not yet posted on the FDA site
- Avoid processed foods (or know what's in them). Peanut ingredients are widespread in these foods, showing up in peanut sauces, frozen dinners, candies, cookies, breads, puddings, ice cream, cereals, and even protein drinks and fruit and vegetable snack packs for kids lunches. The Centers for Disease Control are advising consumers to avoid all peanut-containing products until further information about potentially affected products is made available.
- PCA sells peanut butter in bulk to schools and hospitals. Ask the officials at yours if they've reviewed the recall lists and checked with their suppliers.
- Check out attorney and food safety expert Bill Marler's blog, with tips and recommendations for reducing food safety threats.
- Click here to review the list of products at Whole Foods that have been recalled due to potential salmonella problems
- If you can, support a CSA or shop at co-ops and farmer's markets to buy other produce grown locally.
Kathy Gerwig is Vice-President for Work Place Safety and Environmental Stewardship Officer at Kaiser-Permanente. She is responsible for developing, organizing and managing a nationwide environmental initiative for Kaiser Permanente. Her visionary leadership is moving industry away from the use of toxic chemicals. Kathy also serves as the Co-Chair of the Board of Directors of Health Care Without Harm.
What do you do for Kaiser?
I actually have two roles. I am Vice President, Workplace Safety and Environmental Stewardship Officer. In that role, I work with senior KP leaders from labor and management to create a workplace free of injuries. As Environmental Stewardship Officer, I work with a council of committed leaders to integrate sustainability into all of KP's work in order to reduce health risks associated with environmental factors. In both activities, I draw on valuable partnerships with community groups.
How did you become involved at CEH?
Michael Green and I met at a gathering of Health Care Without Harm about ten years ago. I quickly learned that CEH had talented staff who wanted to help us advance our pollution prevention activities. What I found amazing over time is that CEH staff is always willing to do the legwork and secure the expertise to advance our shared interests. We asked CEH to help us convene a conference on green buildings in 2003 and they did everything from providing expert panelists to running the registration website. When we jointly convened a meeting of health care IT purchasers, they provided expertise that we continue to rely on today. CEH also helped broker a program that promotes effective e-waste management in the health care sector by using KP's efforts as a model.
How did you become interested in Environmental Health?
There were several geographers in my family, which may explain why I have always been fascinated by the relationship between humans and the planet. Growing up in West Virginia, a beautiful place of rolling green hills, gave me a first hand look at what mining did to the environment and to the health of miners. My family moved to Santa Barbara in 1969, shortly after a big oil spill there sparked widespread environmental activism and concern for the impact on public health. I had a special pair of beach shoes - everyone did - that were always covered with oil. I realized that I wanted to be engaged in work defined by a profound respect for nature and the health of all people.
What kinds of programs do you implement within Kaiser?
- Green procurement including promoting the use of products that are inherently safe for the environment.
- High-performance buildings which includes energy conservation, renewable energy and sustainable building materials.
- Sustainable operations including waste minimization, recycling, reprocessing, and greener cleaners.
- Healthy and sustainable food, which includes over two dozen on-site farmers' markets and serving local produce in patient meals at 19 regional Kaiser Permanente hospitals. The first vending machine in the country to offer Fair Trade coffee was at KP-Sacramento.
- For more information on KP's programs, go to www.kp.org/green.
What is your perspective on the relationship between environmental health and the healthcare industry?
Healthy communities and a healthy environment are critical to the health and wellness of every person. Environmental sustainability and social equity have direct, positive effects on individual and community health. We know that achieving total health begins with a healthy environment. This, together with a commitment to public dialogue, helps improve the health of our communities.
Add CEH's brand new feed onto your RSS list! It'll tell you when we update our website with up-to-the-minute news on important environmental health issues, information about our work, and the latest ideas for protecting your home and family from toxic chemicals.
Just visit www.ceh.org, and click the orange square on the right side of the URL bar.
(Caroline Cox pictured below with husband and occasional cookie baker Al Coddington.)
Caroline Cox is the nationally renowned environmental health scientist who leads CEH's research on toxic exposures. For this edition of the Corner, we asked Caroline to share a few tips to help people avoid some of the toxic chemicals that accompany Valentines Day.
Here's what Caroline had to say:
My husband Al is not someone who makes a big deal about presents. He rarely remembers my birthday unless our daughters remind him, he spends weeks making Scrooge-like remarks in December, and probably hasn't even thought about Valentine's Day in years.
But the first Valentine's Day after we met, he gave me a shoe box full of a half-dozen kinds of cookies that he had baked. Not only had he baked the cookies, he made up the recipes too. Those cookies became a family legend, and years later when we found the scrap of paper with th