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With well over 21, 000 stores across the U.S., major ‘dollar store’ chains supply household staples for millions of people, amounting to $36 billion in sales per year. These discount retailers often target low-income communities with limited access to fresh food or alternative sources for household products, though cost-conscious shoppers of less limited means also flock to them for deals on items like cleaners, party supplies, and office products.

What do consumers unwittingly bring home with their discount toys, shampoo, and tablecloths?

Lead, PVC, and phthalates, among other harmful chemicals. A recent study by the Campaign for Healthier Solutions found that 81% of the products they tested from four dollar store chains in six states had dangerous levels of these and other toxic substances.

Many consumers are surprised to learn that the products they bring into their homes on a daily basis contain toxic chemicals. We assume that our government regulatory bodies are looking out for our health and welfare, but in fact they do very little to regulate what chemical manufacturers bring to market, and don’t require that chemicals get tested for safety before use in consumer products. The EPA, which under current law bears the burden of safety testing, has tested only a few hundred of the more than 85,000 chemicals found in products we use every day, ranging from deodorant and household cleaners to furniture and toys.

81% of the products they tested from four dollar store chains in six states had dangerous levels of these and other toxic substances.

The United States lags far behind other developed countries in its lack of regulation of industrial chemicals. Unlike the U.S., the European Union follows what’s known as the “precautionary principle”, which means that companies must demonstrate the safety of their products before putting them on the market. The E.U. banned many endocrine disruptors, carcinogens, and other “chemicals of concern” years ago, while the U.S. continues to allow these chemicals in household products millions of Americans use daily.

Two opposing bills now before Congress aim to change our lax chemical regulations, though just how much remains to be seen. Not surprisingly, chemical corporations are lobbying hard to avoid enhanced oversight. The Environmental Working Group, which has advocated for toxics reform for years, urges supporters of tighter chemical regulations to contact their representatives to support the stricter version of the bill (S. 725), introduced by Senator Barbara Boxer. Rather than leaving it to the EPA to determine that a chemical poses an “unreasonable risk,” as is now the case, S. 725 would require industry to demonstrate “reasonable certainty of no harm.” Seems pretty basic, but never underestimate the power of big money in politics.

In the meantime, dollar stores continue to stock products that have tested positive for toxic amounts of lead, phthalates, and other unsavory chemicals that get on our hands, in our air, and in our kids’ mouths. The Campaign for Healthier Solutions wants to work with dollar stores to get these unnecessarily dangerous substances out of their supply chains and has launched a petition asking the major dollar store chains to take action to protect their customers. It has nearly reached its goal of 150,000 signatures. You can add yours here.

If you’re looking to save money but want to avoid the toxic chemicals, consider some of these alternatives.

Safer Cleaning

Chemical cleaners in dollar stores (as well as on most grocery and drugstore shelves) contain ingredients linked to cancer, respiratory problems, and other health effects. Thankfully, these substances are easy to avoid. Many plant-based, non-toxic versions are now readily available – even in your supermarket, alongside the chemical ones. As more consumers have voted with their dollars for safer products, non-toxic cleaners have become easier to find. Look for non-toxic all-purpose cleaners, dish soap, dishwasher detergent and numerous other task-specific cleaners.

Plain old soap is your best bet for hand washing. (And Eartheasy soaps contain no microbeads, a scourge on aquatic environments.) Antibacterial products contain unnecessary chemical disinfectants that are no more effective than soap and expose you to chemicals like triclosan, a hormone disruptor toxic to aquatic life, recently banned in my home state of Minnesota. Good scrubbing and cleaning cloths can also help you clean effectively without harsh chemical cleaners.

Don’t douse your clean clothes in questionable chemicals! Keep your laundry chemical-free with natural laundry detergents and stain removers, and try dryer balls instead of chemical-laden laundry sheets.

Making your own cleaners is easy and will save you money (as well as all the plastic required for purchased cleaners). All you need are a couple empty spray bottles, some white vinegar and water, and baking soda. Castile soap is also a versatile home-cleaning ingredient that can serve double duty as a body wash or shaving soap. Below are a few very simple recipes to get you started on a greener cleaning routine. (Find lots more here.)

General all-purpose cleaner: Mix 1 part vinegar to 4 parts water. You can add a few drops of your favorite essential oil if you like. Perfect for cleaning windows and other surfaces. Undiluted vinegar is also an effective disinfectant and works well to remove tough stains.

Scrub: Combine baking soda and water to make a paste for scrubbing sinks, tubs, and pots. You can add a little liquid soap for additional cleaning. Baking soda paste will loosen baked-on food from pans or the oven; leave overnight and wipe off.
Bathroom cleaner: Mix one part hydrogen peroxide with two parts water and spray on bathroom mildew. Leave at least one hour before rinsing.

Also look for non-toxic pest control products rather than exposing your family to hazardous pesticides.

Skip the Cheap Trinkets

Reduce. Consider alternatives to the cheap toys and party supplies at dollar stores. The number one question to ask yourself is what you can do without or do differently (those all-important Rs, Reduce and Rethink). Most of our kids have more than enough toys, and our homes easily get overrun with their clutter (mine sure does). Do your kids need more toys or can you put that money toward an enriching experience instead? Recent research has shown that experiences actually make us much happier than more stuff, certainly true if you’re a parent trying to keep toy chaos at bay!

Swap. Save on toys by setting up toy swaps with your kids’ circle of friends. Kids can still enjoy the novelty of new toys every so often without contributing to our culture’s cycle of waste. When you do buy toys and craft items, invest in fewer, high-quality products.

Skip the party favors. Over the last couple years we have acquired an alarming number of plastic doodads from birthday party favor bags, and we have no way of knowing what they’re exposing our kids to. An even cheaper alternative to junk favors from the dollar store? Just say no to party favors altogether. You just had a great party for your child and all her friends – do they really also need a present? Some parents I know have skipped favors without provoking complaints, and those who still wanted to give little gifts to their guests but preferred to avoid the waste and/or expense had party activities featuring creative craft projects that kids could take home with them.

Likewise, you can cut down on the party waste by serving foods that don’t require cutlery, like cupcakes rather than cake. Or you can bring reusable plates and flatware. Opt for reusable and/or homemade decorations as well, like a banner that can be brought out year after year.

Reuse. Reusing decorations from all the big commercial holidays will also save you money and shrink the Halloween-Christmas-Valentine’s Day-Easter-July 4 decorating footprint. Consider using homemade decorations to mark these occasions in your house. A couple hand-carved jack-o-lanterns made from actual pumpkins rather than lots of plastic skeletons and bats can help reign in the consumer madness of Halloween. A crafty relative of mine always makes gorgeous displays of interesting branches and pinecones she collects at Christmas. Have fun being creative and put the money you save toward something more meaningful.

Do Your Homework

Even if you skip the dollar stores, until there is more sensible oversight of the chemical industry, it’s up to you to protect yourself and your family. Plenty of harmful chemicals can be found in your local supermarket and drugstore. Fortunately, there are now some excellent tools to help you make informed choices about these purchases. The Environmental Working Group has added immeasurably to consumers’ ability to check on the safety of products they bring into their homes. Their Skin Deep Cosmetics Database evaluates over 80,000 personal care products, allowing you to look up the toxicity profile of everything from your shampoo to your kids’ toothpaste. Their database of household cleaners likewise lets you check the safety of the myriad cleaning products lining store shelves.

Vote with your dollars, but also write your elected officials, sign petitions, and let the stores you shop at know that you want them to commit to phasing out dangerous chemicals. You can start with the petitions below.

Environmental Working Group Petition for real toxics reform

Campaign for Healthier Solutions Dollar Store petition


Environmental Working Group Chemical Policy Overview

Campaign for Healthier Solutions Dollar Store Report

Eartheasy Guide to Reducing Indoor Toxins

Eartheasy Tips for Sustainable Giving

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