See a related article from the Ecology Center's website, Better Product Pioneers: Healthy Stuff
Testing for Toxins through Healthy Stuff
Jeff Gearhart and others at the EC began to take a more active role in testing for toxins in everyday products when they launched the clean car campaign and the website HeathyCars.org. The aim of the website was to test various cars for toxic chemicals to look at their impact on individual’s health as well as the environmental impact. After beginning with testing car interiors, the public asked the EC to test children’s car seats. The EC happily did testing on car seats, which led people to ask the EC to test their childrens’ toys. This led to the creation of HealthyToys.org. Jeff Gearhart remembers how this created a snowball effect as the EC continued to receive feedback from the public asking them to test a number of products. Realizing they could not continue to make a new website for every item tested, the EC merged HealthyCars.org and HealthyToys.org into HealthyStuff.org in 2009, which encompassed the testing of products that the public demanded.
Companies were upset that the EC was testing their products and making consumers aware of the harm that these products were causing. By carrying out these tests, the EC helped to empower communities to question the products they were purchasing as consumers, which ultimately pushed several companies to be more transparent with what hazards their products contained.
Since the creation of HealthyStuff.org, the EC has been involved in testing a number of product samples, including finding numerous toxic chemicals within Mardi Gras beads and calling attention to the dangerous petroleum coke issue in Detroit.
Mardi Gras Beads May Be More Malignant than They Seem
In 2013, HealthyStuff.org and the organization VerdiGras—made up of New Orleans community members working on the “greening” of Mardi Gras—published a study that brought national attention to the host of harmful chemicals within beaded Mardi Gras necklaces and holiday garlands. One problem is that the beads have an enormous environmental footprint. During production, they are made from petroleum-based plastic, using oil to process the plastic into polystyrene and polyethylene pellets, which mainly occurs in the Gulf of Mexico and the Middle East. Then, beads are shipped to China where they are turned into necklaces to be used as Mardi Gras throws. During this phase, other plastics containing lead, arsenic, and other toxic chemicals are used in creation of the throws.
The study published by the EC and VerdiGras found that the Mardi Gras beads contained high levels of bromine, levels of lead above 100 ppm, chlorine levels above 3,500 ppm, and a high phthalate concentration. The presence of these toxins demonstrated that both brominated and chlorinated flame retardants were used to make the beads, lead levels within the beads exceeded the limit set by the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), and phthalates banned by the CPSC were used in the production of the beads. The high levels of toxins are not only problematic for those producing, working with, and purchasing the beads, but for the environment as well. Only about 2% of the beads purchased at Mardi Gras are recycled, much of the rest are left to sit and leech these toxic chemicals into the environment.
After exposing the problem, HealthyStuff.org has continued to test Mardi Gras beads, posting an update in 2020. Unfortunately, the toxic chemical composition had not shown any real improvement. However, due to the efforts from the EC, the toxic chemical issue gained publicity in a number of news articles including in yahoo finance news and USA Today. Additionally, due to the EC’s scientific contribution to the study, a number of alternatives to the toxic filled bead throws have been created by VerdiGras and community members. Beads made from recycled magazines, biodegradable algae, and throws other than beads—such as beans, rice mixes, and coffee—have become popular. Although plastic beads are still commonly found at Mardi Gras, the EC HealthyStuff.org initiative has informed the public of the hazards these beads pose and empowered VerdiGras and other community members to find alternatives to the beads.
Pet Coke Clouds Loom Over Detroit
When dark, grimy clouds of dust began blowing into Detroit in 2013, communities in Detroit became concerned. The clouds were made up of petroleum coke dust from the enormous piles of it placed along the Detroit River by Koch Carbon, a company that trades bulk products such as coal, petroleum coke, and sulfur. The petroleum coke came from Marathon Petroleum, which was refining exports from the Canadian oil sands and selling them to Koch. Petroleum coke is a waste byproduct of coking, a refining process that releases oil from the bitumen in oil sands. Pet coke is inexpensive to make and can be useful in metal production, however, when created as an unstable byproduct—like the pet coke in Detroit—it is extremely expensive to store and is not useful in metal production. Additionally, the US Environmental Protection Agency no longer allows for the burning of pet coke as fuel due to its enormous environmental footprint. There are fewer restrictions outside of the US, however, and pet coke is sought out internationally in nations such as China, India, and throughout Latin America.
The EC helped to draw attention to the pet coke issue. Jeff Gearhart voiced his concern about the toxic byproduct’s impact on the community of Detroit, “you’re already in a very highly impacted community. So all of these incremental impacts are important, and I think have the potential to have real-world impacts on people’s health.” Gearhart also was disappointed with the way in which the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) handled the issue. He felt that the issue was not taken seriously enough and that the “MDEQ's conclusion of ‘no significant public health risk’ is overstated and mostly based on modeling, not actual environmental monitoring. I am still dissatisfied with the lack of on-the-ground data on air quality and particulate matter due to the unpermitted open storage of petroleum coke.”
The EC not only brought media attention to the dangers of pet coke, but was also involved in efforts to investigate the issue. HealthyStuff.org tested samples of pet coke dust collected by community members from inside people’s homes and around southwest Detroit, finding it to be filled with a number of toxic chemicals. Rashida Tlaib collected many of these samples and played an integral role in testing the pet coke dust. Tlaib was part of the Michigan House of Representatives, at the time, and is now the state representative for Michigan’s thirteenth congressional district. In addition to Tlaib, the local Sierra Club chapter also helped with the pet coke issue by bringing attention to it and working with community members to demand more public information on the toxins they were exposed to. After the outrage by Detroit communities and media coverage, the pet coke piles were removed by the City of Detroit. By helping community members like Rashida Tlaib and working with other organizations like the Sierra Club, the EC’s HealthyStuff.org helped empower the communities within Detroit to take action, ultimately leading to the removal of the pet coke piles.
The Lasting Impact of HealthyStuff.org
The creation of HealthyStuff.org led the Ecology Center to take a more structured and active role in testing community products for toxins. Through the work of HealthyStuff.org, the EC has tested a number of samples, including those from Mardi Gras beads and pet coke dust. This has allowed the EC to bring awareness to toxins humans are exposed to everyday and has provided consumers with knowledge to choose products that are healthier for themselves and the planet.
Article written by Bridget Grabowski, member of the Spring/Summer 2021 Research team.