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Toxic chemicals commonly found in dollar store items, testing shows

Regulators are leaving "big loopholes" for dollar stores to walk through

Mia Rabson, The Canadian Press

Canada needs more transparency and better enforcement to protect Canadians from unlimited exposure to toxic chemicals like lead and cadmium, an analysis from Environmental Defence said Wednesday.

The organization reported on tests conducted on dozens of products purchased at popular Canadian dollar stores. One in four of the products tested were positive for substances managed under the Canadian Environmental Protection Act. Many of the findings were within the allowable limits, but the report says those limits are not strong enough.

The outer ring on a set of stereo headphones was found to have 24 times the legal limit of lead, and five times the legal limit of cadmium.

The solder inside the same headphones had 170 times what is considered safe on the outer portions of the headphones. The solder on a separate set of earbud-style headphones had 3,000 times the amount of lead allowed on the accessible portions.

But the solder is not covered by the regulations, a gap Environmental Defence insists must be closed.

Cassie Barker, toxics manager for Environmental Defence, said internal lead can still be exposed if products break or wear down.

“The way that kids use products, and you know they break things and so that internal (lead) quickly becomes an external lead,” she said.

The toxic harm from lead poisoning has been documented for more than 50 years. It can cause significant cognitive and developmental delays in young children with high exposures, and can create risks of high blood pressure and kidney damage in adults. It has been barred from use in gasoline, food cans and paints.

Barker said the headphones, which exceeded the allowed limits of both metals, are proof that monitoring and enforcement of toxic substance regulations need to be beefed up.

“Obviously, retailers shouldn’t be shirking their responsibility for having safe products on their shelves,” she said, but regulators are leaving “big loopholes” for dollar stores to walk through.

Other products that raised concerns for Environmental Defence were food cans lined with bisphenol A, commonly known as BPA. The chemical, which helps make plastics harder, was added to the list of toxic substances in Canada in 2010 after studies linked it to prostate disease, breast cancer, infertility and behavioural problems in children. It was banned from baby bottles and other plastic baby products that same year.

But it is still allowed in products such as food cans, said Barker. Some companies have moved away from using the substance on their own, but 60 per cent of the cans the organization tested contained it.

The report calls on Environment Canada to require companies to label all hazardous ingredients in products, including those that are hidden inside electronics or used in the packaging. It also recommends more regulatory enforcement and product testing so that harmful products can be identified before they hit store shelves.

Barker said the tests were done on items from dollar stores because such stores are often the only option for people with low incomes or in marginalized communities.

Environmental Defence provided its report to the companies whose stores it visited, including Dollar Tree and Dollarama. A statement from Dollar Tree said a similar study in the United States two years ago prompted it to remove 17 chemicals from its products.

A statement from Dollarama said, “consumer product safety is our utmost priority, and we have strict processes and controls in place to monitor product safety and quality. The four Dollarama product categories identified in the report (stereo headphone, earbud, pencil pouch and activity tracker) meet applicable Canadian product regulations and are safe to use for their intended purposes.”

The Canadian Environmental Protection Act, which governs toxic chemicals in Canada, is in the midst of being updated. 

Legislation that would enshrine the right to a healthy environment into law for the first time passed in the Senate in the spring, though the law doesn’t define what a “healthy environment” means.

Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault said in an interview that he is open to additional changes to the bill, which is expected to be debated in the House of Commons this fall.

Guilbeault said he hadn’t yet read the Environmental Defence report and couldn’t comment on its specific findings.

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