Story at a glance

  • Major retailers are starting to eliminate PFAS and other harmful chemicals from food packaging materials, a significant source of exposure to these contaminants.
  • The best in class include Apple (A+), Target (A), Walmart (A) and IKEA (A-).
  • Companies that improved the most include Ahold Delhaize, Bed Bath & Beyond, Dollar General, Lowe’s, Panera Bread, Sephora and Staples.
  • In the past year, 63 percent of the evaluated companies improved their policies around harmful chemicals.

When officials from Kentucky’s Department of Environmental Protection tested the state’s tap water, they detected toxic per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) at half of the sampling sites, according to results released last week. Testing has found these harmful PFAS chemicals in the drinking water of places across the country from California to New Jersey

Exposure to PFAS chemicals can increase the risk of cancer, affect the immune system and interfere with the body’s hormones, among other negative effects, according to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. But for the first time, major retailers are starting to eliminate PFAS and other chemicals from food packaging materials, a significant source of exposure to these contaminants. 

There was a “dramatic improvement” in retailers’ actions to protect consumers from harmful chemicals for the 11 companies evaluated since 2016, according to the fourth annual retailer report card published by the national nonprofit Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families’s Mind the Store campaign. The report card assessed the chemical policies of 43 major companies with more than 190,000 stores in the U.S. and Canada, though they evaluated just 11 of those retailers starting in 2016. 

“Our federal government has failed to act on hazardous chemicals that can cause cancer, reproductive harm, and other serious illnesses,” says Mike Schade, report co-author and Mind the Store campaign director for Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families. “In light of this growing regulatory void, major retailers are stepping up to safeguard our health.”

Just in the past year, 63 percent of the evaluated companies improved their policies around harmful chemicals. The average grade for all 43 retailers was a C- this year, which is an improvement from the D+ average in last year’s retailer report card. Of the 43 retailers examined, 14 received an F grade for “failing to adopt basic public policies to address toxics in their products and packaging.” That doesn’t sound great, but about half of the evaluated retailers received F scores last year. Restaurants are the worst-performing retail sector for chemical safety, the report card shows. The six retailers in the restaurant category averaged an F grade. But there are some brights spots, says Schade, with Panera Bread taking action by restricting chemicals in food packaging and food gloves. 

Four retailers received the highest grades for protecting customers from toxic products and packaging: Apple (A+), Target (A), Walmart (A) and IKEA (A-). 

“It’s really a growing and emerging trend,” says Schade. “Major grocery chains and other retailers are restricting toxic chemicals, particularly PFAS and phthalates, in food packaging and other food-contact materials. Unfortunately, the FDA has been asleep at the wheel in restricting these chemicals.” 

Schade adds, “The most promising signs of change right now are in the states and in the marketplace.”

The research highlights companies that improved the most as well: Ahold Delhaize, Bed Bath & Beyond, Dollar General, Lowe’s, Panera Bread, Sephora and Staples. The Mind the Store campaign also notes the commitments made by Lowe’s and Home Depot to stop selling carpets and rugs containing PFAS chemicals.

“Parents shouldn’t have to ask whether a product on the market is safe from harmful chemicals,” said Dr. Maida P. Galvez of Mount Sinai Children’s Environmental Health Center. “This is a major step towards promoting healthy environments and healthy families across the United States.”

Published on Nov 25, 2019