Traces of heavy metals have been found in imported flexible PVC packaging for products sold at discount stores, according to a report from Toxics in Packaging Clearinghouse.
According to a June 28 report, 39 percent of the packages screened by TPCH showed the presence of cadmium or lead.
Nineteen states prohibit the intentional use of heavy metals like cadmium, lead, mercury, and hexavalent chromium in packaging and packaging components, and limit incidental use to less than 100 parts per million.
Heavy metals pose an environmental concern, said Patricia Dillon, program manager for TPCH. When waste is incinerated, the metals aren't destroyed and instead show up in the ash or in the atmosphere. When waste is recycled, those metals end up back in the packaging stream, she said.
Brattleboro, Vt.-based TPCH works with states to ensure packaging is compliant. In the past, the group has conducted tests on a variety of packaging materials — plastics, glass, steel, aluminum and paper – but this time focused solely on flexible PVC packaging, an area shown to be problematic, Dillon said.
The group also focused on discount or “dollar” stores, because they offer a ready supply of inexpensive, imported products, another common source of non-compliant packaging, she said.
TPCH purchased products at six discount or dollar chain stores and from “dollar bins” at two well-known retail chains. All eight of the retailers sold non-compliant products.
The group would not release the names of the retailers because they have taken action to remove the products and correct the issue, Dillon said, adding that the names would become public if retailers continued to violate the restrictions.
The group tested 61 packages from a variety of products using an X-ray fluorescence (XRF) scanner. Of those, 24 of the packages contained cadmium. One package, for a cat toy imported from China, also contained lead.
Non-compliant packages came from a variety of categories — children's products, pet supplies, personal care, household items, home furnishings, hardware and apparel — and, with one exception where a product's origins could not be determined, were imported from China, according to the report.
“It's not about PVC, it's about making PVC the wrong way,” said Allen Blakey, spokesman for the Vinyl Institute in Arlington, Va.
“[Companies] need to show more responsibility for the formulation in the manufacturing and the quality control of their product,” he said in a phone interview.
Heavy metals — cadmium and lead in particular — can be used as stabilizers in PVC or added to inks, Blakely said. The metals are inexpensive and perform well, so at one time were widely used. When concerns were raised about heavy metals, most companies replaced them with other materials, he said, adding that he didn't know of any major vinyl applications that still used cadmium.
Those that do need to start following the law, he said, and companies that work with imported materials need to be diligent about ensuring they're compliant.
“The responsibility ought to be with everybody in the supply chain. Everyone buying, transporting and retailing these products,” he said. “You have to ensure that you're meeting the requirements of the law.”
States used the results of the report to notify retailers, manufacturers and distributors of the non-compliant products. Retailers responded and took action by pulling the products off shelves, returning the products to the manufacturer, implementing new quality-control procedures or purchasing XRF scanners, the report said.
Though non-compliant packages continue to appear, the number is shrinking. In a 2007 report, 61 percent of PVC packages failed screening tests and 52 percent failed in 2009.
Screening for metals has become easier in recent years with the development of handheld XRF scanners, and retailers and major companies have become more diligent about ensuring packages are compliant, Dillon said.
“Since the TPCH has been screening, we think we're seeing a good improvement in packaging. … We think we're seeing progress,” she said.