Photograph by Rebecca Hale and Mark Thiessen, National Geographic
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Over the past decade, dollar stores have grown exponentially, expanding into urban pockets of high poverty and flooding rural American towns unserved by big-box stores. While these stores have filled a void, they may also be exposing families to harmful chemicals such as PVC and phthalates, mostly found in soft plastic products.

Photograph by Rebecca Hale and Mark Thiessen, National Geographic

Dollar stores moving to pull dangerous plastics from shelves

Under steady pressure by consumer advocates, Dollar Tree has committed to phasing out harmful chemicals like BPA in their plastic products. Who's next?

Dollar stores, those ubiquitous businesses that sell everything from bathroom cleaner to eggs, are starting to take action that begins to right what consumer advocates call a clear wrong: Many of the plastic products on their shelves contain chemicals that can have grave health effects for their customers.

Earlier this month, Dollar Tree—one of America’s largest dollar store chains— signed onto a program that would help the company phase out heavy metals such as lead and harmful chemicals including the plastic additives bisphenol A (BPA) and phthalates from their products.

The Chemical Footprint Project measures a company’s chemical footprint and then tracks their progress toward using safer alternatives throughout their supply chain. Any company involved with the CFP formally submits data to the program, beginning with a survey that establishes a baseline score.

Usually, financial risk and fierce competition between chains drives companies to sign onto the CFP. But with dollar stores, which serve largely low-income communities of color, there was pressure to do right by vulnerable groups.

“Dollar Tree is a case where we felt it was also an issue of social justice,” says Alexandra McPherson, a project manager for the Investor Environmental Health Network, an investor collaborative that encourages companies to join the project. “Are people who can’t afford organic products inadvertently being sold the most toxic ones?”

For the past five years the Campaign for Healthier Solutions—a coalition of organizations stretching from Texas to Maine—has called for dollar stores to phase out hazardous chemicals from their products. While their efforts have translated slowly into action, including Dollar Tree’s recent pledge, the dollar chains haven’t always factored into public concern. The campaign was born when environmental justice advocates realized that although stores such as Target and Walmart were being pressured by consumer groups to address toxic chemicals in their supply chain, that same scrutiny was missing the four major dollar store chains: Dollar Tree, which recently acquired Family Dollar, Dollar General, and the 99 Cents Only Store.

“We have always understood that as people of color in low-income communities, we had a disproportionate exposure to chemicals,” says José T. Bravo, the campaign’s national coordinator. “And it’s these communities that are basically peppered with dollar stores.”

Martha Cisneros, who has been involved with the campaign through the female farmworker network, Lideres Campesinas, lives in one such community. Arvin, California, a town of 30,000 people, predominantly Latino farmworkers, is home to two dollar stores, but is 20 miles away from any big-box grocery store. Without a car, that’s an impossible trip for Cisneros and even if she could get there, the mother of four is not sure she could afford it. Instead, she walks less than a mile from her one-bedroom mobile home to the nearby Dollar Tree. At the dollar store, Cisneros says, she knows that each item—from the half-dozen eggs her family relies upon to the school supplies for her youngest daughter—will cost just one dollar each. But they come with a risk.

“I feel bad shopping at dollar stores,” she says. “But I was never aware; no one told me about the harmful chemicals.”

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Hidden toxic chemicals

In 2014 members from the Campaign for Healthier Solutions collected more than 160 dollar store products, such as pencil cases and silly straws, that were then tested for chemicals. They found that 81 percent of products tested hazardous for at least one chemical of concern, such as lead or polyvinyl chloride (PVC) plastic. Among the most pervasive, however, were phthalates—a group of chemicals, including DEHP and DIBP, that make plastic soft and malleable.

Phthalates, like BPA, are known endocrine disruptors, chemicals that can interfere with the body’s hormones. Given that they are only loosely bonded to the plastics they’re added to, they easily leach out of products and cause exposure through ingestion, inhalation, and even skin contact. Glittery pencil cases, shell-shaped bathtub mats, and plastic headbands were among the products found to have phthalate levels above U.S. regulatory limits. They are also the kind of bright, cheap, plastic items synonymous with children and with dollar stores.

“If you go into a dollar store, it smells like plastic,” says Carmen Messerlian, an assistant professor of environmental reproductive, perinatal, and pediatric epidemiology at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. “You can smell the phthalates.”

Messerlian is part of the Environment and Reproductive Health Study based out of Boston, Massachusetts, an ongoing body of research that explores how environmental chemicals can affect reproductive health. A 2016 paper published by the team found that among women undergoing medically assisted pregnancy, those with the highest concentrations of DEHP—one kind of phthalate—in their urine were 60 percent more likely to miscarry prior to 20 weeks than those with the lowest concentrations, according to Messerlian. The study is the first to look at how phthalate exposure may affect the very early stages of pregnancy among couples with fertility problems.

Other observational studies and animal-based research have linked phthalate exposure to reproductive problems, obesity, type II diabetes, and neurodevelopmental issues in children.

For Deyadira Arellano, the latter is especially worrying. At her daughter’s three-year-old pediatrician appointment, the doctor said he was concerned about her neurological development. Arellano, a frequent dollar store customer and a community health worker for the Houston-based organization Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services, became involved with the Campaign for Healthier Solutions while pregnant. The campaign’s findings left her suspicious of dollar store products made from shiny metal or pliable plastic. After the appointment, she began to question everything.

“I started wondering, could it be the air, the water, the baby food, something I bought?’” Arellano says. “You get stuck in this mind trap of ‘what have I done?’”

Hurting the most vulnerable

Exposure to endocrine disruptors, including phthalates, is significantly higher among low-income and minority communities, many of whom are already exposed to other pollutants. One study found that disproportionate exposures to endocrine disruptors may account for the higher rate of diabetes among black and Hispanic communities. More recently, a study broke down exposure to endocrine disruptors by race and found that minorities disproportionately bore the costs and health burdens of diseases associated with endocrine disruptors, including IQ loss and obesity.

“It’s a big concern that segments of the population, people who we generally consider more at risk of health problems, have less access to products with fewer of these chemicals in them,” Messerlian says. “It means they’re more likely to buy products that are less regulated than what we'd want.”

Just over a decade ago, Congress banned the sale or manufacture of “toys and childcare items” with phthalate concentrations of more than 0.1 percent. Eight phthalates including DEHP and DIBP are currently regulated by the act. In California, Maine, and New York state policy further restrict phthalates in children’s products, while Washington state’s governor is expected to sign into law the nation’s strongest phthalate regulation. But while policy plays an important role in protecting human health, it can also be slow moving and limited in scope.

Phthalate levels in common household items such as plastic table covers and non-slip bathtub mats are unrestricted yet are easily accessible to children. Then there’s the issue of banning individual phthalates rather than the entire group. That approach, Messerlian says, leaves researchers and regulators playing a game of “Whack-a-Mole,” where one chemical is banned and another appears in its place. Moreover, research has shown that replacement phthalates can be just as harmful as those that are regulated, as was the case when DINP and DIDP replaced the more common DEHP.

Small victories

Rather than wait for government policy to force them to adapt, members of the Campaign for Healthier Solutions have instead encouraged dollar stores to emulate retailers such as Target and Walmart and phase out known chemicals of concern. Dollar Tree, which declined to comment for this article, has already made progress. Bravo and other campaign leaders have also met with executives from Dollar General.

In a statement to National Geographic, Dollar General representatives said the company is committed to selling safe products that meet or exceed their standards as well as legal and regulatory requirements.

“Customers can shop at Dollar General stores with confidence, knowing we firmly stand behind our products and the communities we proudly serve,” the statement says. “We appreciate ongoing and positive dialogue with the Campaign for Healthier Solutions and Mr. Bravo.”

Following a protest outside their Los Angeles headquarters in early April, a representative of the 99 Cents Only Store also agreed to meet with campaign members. 99 Cents Only Store did not reply to National Geographic’s requests for comment.

While Bravo considers even the meetings a small victory, he would like to see dollar stores go beyond what is required of them and become conscious retailers that do right by their customers, workers, and the environment. After all, for most people involved in the campaign and the low-income, rural, and communities of color they represent, the dollar store is often their best and only option.

“We said at the beginning of the campaign that this is not about boycotting dollar stores,” Bravo says. “Why? Our communities lack major supermarkets and even if they existed, they’re way out of our budget. For us, there’s no alternative.”