Seattle mother Rachel Koller, who campaigned for the law, said she tries to avoid buying products for her 5-year-old daughter that contain certain chemicals. But most compounds don't have to be included on ingredient lists, so there is little information available. She said the new database helps, although it raises lots of unanswered questions about risks.
“We use the research we have, and make the best decisions," Koller said.
The first reporting, due last August, required companies with gross annual revenues of $1 billion to report chemicals in products that could be put into the mouth by children under 3 years old, and those intended to be put in the mouth or rubbed on the skin for children under 12 years old. The second reporting, due last February, included products intended for prolonged contact with the skin, including clothing, jewelry and bedding. Reporting by smaller companies comes next August.
The new law already is driving changes in products. Some companies, including Wal-Mart, Gap, Nike and VF Corp., have filed documents with the state stating that they would eliminate some chemicals on the list.
Nike, Lego Systems, Gap and Wal-Mart did not respond to EHN's requests for comment. In e-mail messages, Gymboree stressed that all of its products met or exceeded federal and state safety requirements, while H&M said it meets all standards and that it works to limit, and find substitutes for, hazardous chemicals. Mattel referred calls to the Toy Industry Association.
Cobalt rises to the top
Cobalt, an element used in many blue dyes and other pigments, turns out to be a favorite with manufacturers. Surprisingly, it was the most commonly reported substance, turning up so far in 1,228 individual products in 40 different categories.
Lego reported cobalt in the pigment of some plastic building blocks, while Mattel reported it as a surface coloration in a powered ride-on toy, drawing boards and role-play toys. Cobalt and its compounds also were reported in pigments and inks of baby feeding bibs sold by Gap and Gymboree, and in synthetic baby changing mats by the VF Corp., which represents two dozen brands, including Nautica, Wrangler and JanSport. New Balance and other companies used cobalt in surface coatings as well as in synthetic polymers and textiles of footwear.
Traces of cobalt have been found in the urine of nearly all children and adults tested in the United States, according to data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The sources are unknown, however.
Understanding cobalt's human health effects comes primarily from metal workers, who develop bronchial asthma and lung disease, including cancer, linked to their workplace exposure. In autopsies, exposed workers generally had higher levels of cobalt in kidney, lung and spleen tissue than unexposed workers.
Rodent studies showed lung and other cancers, testicular atrophy, reduced fertility and accumulation of cobalt in organs that affected their function, particularly in young animals. Exposure to fish damaged sperm and hampered reproduction.
But there are no published studies of people routinely exposed to cobalt from consumer products.
Cobalt is “not on the radar of researchers,” said David Bellinger, a Harvard professor of neurology who studies the effects of metal exposure on children’s developing brains. “I do not think that I have ever seen a study on its potential toxicity in children – or adults. If it is a common exposure and it is bioavailable, then it should be looked at.”
A solvent in polyester
The second most common chemical was an industrial solvent named ethylene glycol, which was reported in more than 1,000 products, mostly plastics. Known for its use as an antifreeze, ethylene glycol also is used to make polyester and plastic water bottles.