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Gina-Marie Cheeseman headshot

Walmart Shares More Information About 'High Priority' Chemicals


Americans are exposed to a number of chemicals every day, and much of the exposure is in their own homes. Some of those chemicals are attracting negative attention: An investigation by the Environmental Working Group (EWG) of over 2,000 cleaning products on the U.S. market found that many contain chemicals that are linked to serious health problems.

Over the past few years, Walmart has proven to be concerned about the chemicals in the products it sells. The big-box giant began to share information about the chemicals in household and personal care products back in 2013, when it published its Sustainable Chemistry Policy. The Policy focused on transparency in ingredients and making safer product formulations.

In April, Walmart announced it had reduced the use of "high-priority chemicals" by 95 percent. This week, the retailer shared more information detailing the progress it has made on what it deems 'high priority chemicals' and how it defines these ingredients.

The information shared this week included the identities of the high-priority chemicals. Why are these chemicals of such concern to Walmart? Let’s take a close look at each one to find out more.

Toluene is a solvent. According to the the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), studies on humans have “reported developmental effects, such as central nervous system dysfunction, attention deficits, and minor craniofacial and limb anomalies, in the children of pregnant women exposed to high levels of toluene or mixed solvents by inhalation.” The highest concentrations of toluene are usually from indoor exposure through common household products, including paints, paint thinners, adhesives, synthetic fragrances and nail polish.

Dibutyl phthalate is a solvent and used to make plastic flexible. It is found in a variety of household products. Although it appears to have a low acute toxicity in the short-term, it could have a chronic toxicity in the long term, according to the EPA. Although there are no studies available on the reproductive, developmental or carcinogenic effects of dibutyl phthalate in humans, studies on animals found developmental and reproductive effects from oral exposure. The state of California classifies it as a reproductive and developmental toxicant, and the EU banned its use in cosmetics and personal care products.

Diethyl phthalate is also a solvent and used to make plastic flexible. It is used to make a variety of products, including toothbrushes, tools, toys and food packaging. It can even be used in cosmetics and aspirin. It can be “released fairly easily from these products,” according to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. The Australian government’s Department of Health characterizes diethyl phthalate as altering certain “fertility-related parameters” and inducing developmental effects in newborn rodent pups.

Nonylphenol exthoxylates (NPEs) are surfactants used in a wide variety of household products, including laundry detergent. The EPA is concerned that because NPEs are used in many “down-the-drain” products, they are directly released to the environment. They are highly toxic to aquatic organisms and have been found in samples taken from freshwater, saltwater, groundwater, sediment, soil and aquatic biota. In the environment, NPEs break down into nonylphenol (NP), which Safer Chemicals calls “one of the most notorious examples of persistent, bioaccumulative and toxic chemicals.” And NPEs and NP may be a threat to the health of developing fetuses and young children.

Formaldehyde is used as a bonding agent in a variety of household products such as glues, permanent press fabrics, paints and coatings, lacquers and finishes, and paper products. It is also used as a preservative in some medicines, cosmetics and other household products, including dishwashing liquids and fabric softeners. The EPA classified formaldehyde as a probable human carcinogen in 1987. In 2011, the National Toxicology Program classified as a known human carcinogen. The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) also classifies it as a human carcinogen.

Both butylparaben and propylparaben are used as preservatives in personal care products and are classified as parabens. Parabens “mimic estrogen and can act as potential hormone (endocrine) system disruptors,” EWG states. They can be “absorbed through skin, blood and the digestive system,” according to Safer Cosmetics.

Triclosan is an antibacterial compound used in personal care and home cleaning products. According to EWG, triclosan is “persistent in the environment and may be associated with endocrine (hormonal) toxicity.”

Looking over the list, it's heartening to see that Walmart managed to all but eliminate these ingredients from its shelves. The move speaks to its sway with consumer packaged goods companies and suppliers -- and hopefully the market is paying attention.

Image credit: Flickr/Chris Potter

Gina-Marie Cheeseman headshot

Gina-Marie is a freelance writer and journalist armed with a degree in journalism, and a passion for social justice, including the environment and sustainability. She writes for various websites, and has made the 75+ Environmentalists to Follow list by Mashable.com.

Read more stories by Gina-Marie Cheeseman