Environmental group sounds alarm on college sports merchandise

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College basketball fans risk exposing themselves to toxic chemicals when they cheer on their favorite teams during March Madness, according to a new study from an environmental research group.

The Ann Arbor, Mich.-based Ecology Center found that seven out of 10 college sports products sold in retail stores — like basketball jerseys and sports t-shirts — contain hazardous chemicals.

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The Ecology Center released the results Wednesday on its website, healthystuff.org, where it is hosting a "March Badness" bracket of the most toxic college sports gear, which also includes football products.

"Showing your team colors during March Madness shouldn't be bad for your health, yet researchers have found that dangerous chemicals like arsenic, lead, phthalates, and toxic flame retardants are common in the products they tested," Mike Schade, Mind the Store campaign director at Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families, said in a statement.

"Consumers don't want to worry that a NCAA-themed product could carry toxic chemicals into their home," he added.

The Ecology Center is an environmental and health organization that uses scientific research to advocate for greater public protections.

The group tested 65 college sports products from 19 schools, including the nearby University of Michigan, Michigan State University, Duke University, the University of North Carolina, and the University of Kentucky. They were purchased from retail stores, such as Wal-Mart, Target and Walgreens.

The Ecology Center tested for a handful of hazardous chemicals, including lead, mercury and arsenic. The group said these chemicals have been linked to asthma, birth defects, reproductive problems, learning disabilities and cancer.

Some of the items the worst-performing college sports products included a University of Washington basketball jersey, Oklahoma State University football, Michigan football jersey, North Carolina lunch bag and Michigan State seat cushion.

Certain products that are geared toward children also tested poorly. The study found that Kentucky baby clothes and Michigan toddler shoes contained high amounts of harmful chemicals.

The group recommends that children not be allowed to put these items in their mouths, while adults wash their hands after handling them.

"These are products that children can easily come into contact with," Jeff Gearhart, research director at the Ecology Center, said in an interview.

Gearhart said these schools should be responsible for the college sports products sold in their name, even if they don't manufacture them.

"If you're making money licensing these products, then you do have a connection to the product and there is a level of responsibility there," he said.

However, the study also found 20 college sports products that it said are safe, including a Duke baby bib, Michigan car window flag, Michigan State rain cover and Ohio State University piggy bank.

"These products highlight that safer products are already available on the market," the authors of the study wrote.

While the study found that many of the college sports products it tested contained high levels of toxic chemicals, it also said this merchandise is not necessarily breaking the law.

The Consumer Products Safety Commission (CPSC), which regulates this industry, has very loose rules — and in some cases, no rules at all — for many of the toxic chemicals that are found in such  products, Gearhart said.

The CPSC does have rules for the amount of chemicals that can be in children's products.
— This story was updated at 6:01 p.m.

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