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March Badness: New study finds toxic chemicals in University Themed products

Study finds safer alternatives are already on the market

A new study finds that 7 in 10 (71%) of university-themed products sold at top retailers contain one or more hazardous chemicals, including arsenic, lead, bromine, chlorine and mercury and cadmium.  The study is part of ongoing research at (a project of the Michigan-based nonprofit organization, the Ecology Center) on harmful chemicals in consumer products.  Researchers found that product routinely exceed US Consumer Products Safety Commission (CPSC) standards for lead (15%) and phthalates (16 of 18 tested) in children’s products linked to serious health threats.

Over the last two months, the Ecology Center researchers tested 65 university-themed products for substances that have been linked to asthma, birth defects, learning disabilities, reproductive problems, liver toxicity, and cancer.  Products tested included wallets, key chains, seat cushion, and sports jerseys purchased at major retailers including Home Depot, Kroger, Target, Walgreens, and Walmart.  The products tested represent 19 national universities including the University of Michigan, University of Pittsburgh, University of Connecticut, Duke University, and Michigan State University.

“In college towns across America, March Madness brings with it a tremendous amount of excitement,” said Rebecca Meuninck, environmental health campaign director for the Ecology Center and “Many of the Universities represented in our study pride themselves on their efforts to green their campuses, but there’s a disconnect when University-themed products contain harmful chemicals linked to diseases like certain cancers, thyroid disruption, infertility and learning disabilities.” tested the products for chemicals based on their toxicity or their tendency to build up in people and the environment.  These chemicals include arsenic, bromine (brominated flame retardants), chlorine (PVC and chlorinated flame retardants), cadmium, chromium, mercury, lead, antimony, and tin (organotins).  Researchers used high-definition x-ray fluorescence (HDXRF) spectrometry, a non-destructive method that allows for the rapid screening of toxic chemicals in consumer products.  Screening analysis for US CPSC regulated phthalates was conducting on flexible PVC products using FTIR spectroscopy.

The US CPSC (2013) requires that children’s products contain no more than 100 ppm of total lead content.  The CPSC has also permanently banned three types of phthalates (DEHP, DBP, BBP) in children’s toys and on interim basis has banned three phthalates (DINP, DIDP, DnOP) in childcare articles.  Several of the products tested contained banned phthalates and high levels of lead. For example, the University of North Carolina Lunch Bag (purchased at Walmart) contained phthalates banned by the CPSC and levels of lead that exceed CPSC regulation. Similarly, a Michigan State University Seat Cushion (purchased at Kroger) and a University of Central Florida Car Mat (purchased at Walmart) both contained banned phthalates and lead exceeding CPSC regulation.

The study also identified 20 products rated of low concern. These products illustrate a range approaches and materials choices manufactures have taken to produce healthier products.  Examples include PVC-free Michigan State Themed rain gear and a University of Wisconsin PVC-free and phthalate-free grill cover.  These products highlight that safer products are already available on the market.

“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,” said Mike Schade, Mind the Store Campaign Director for Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families. “Consumers don’t want to worry that a NCAA-themed product could carry toxic chemicals into their home. They’re counting on major retailers to leverage their position in the market to encourage the sale of safe products.” recommends common sense precautions when handling these products because they may contain hazardous substances.  Do not allow children to put these items in their mouths and wash your hands after handling these products.

Highlights of Findings from’s University-Themed Product Study:

  • Of the 18 products screened for phthalates, 16 tested positive for the presence of phthalate plasticizers banned by CPSC in children’s products.
  • 71% (46 of 65) of the products contained at least one or more chemicals of concern, such as lead, mercury, phthalates, and toxic flame retardants.
  • Over one third (25 of 65) of the products contained at least two or more chemicals of concern.
  • Approximately 34% of the products tested thus far (23 of 65) contained chlorine levels above 3,500 ppm, suggesting the use of chlorinated flame retardants or PVC.
  • Six of the products tested had bromine levels above 400 ppm, suggesting the use of brominated flame retardants.  The highest level of bromine detected was 5,027 ppm on a University of Michigan Jersey purchased at Target.
  • Five of the products tested contained lead above 100 ppm and the University of Michigan Jersey that had high levels of bromine also contained 131 ppm of lead in the ink print.
  • A Michigan State University Seat Cushion contained high levels of both cadmium (226 ppm) and lead (176 ppm).
  • Two products tested had high levels of arsenic
    • University of Michigan Keychain with Carabineer (125 ppm)
    • University of Minnesota Premium Acrylic Key Ring (246 ppm)
    • A University of Michigan Deluxe Key Ring contained 1,230 ppm of mercury

Many of the substances found in these products have already been restricted or banned in other consumer products. Lead and phthalates have been restricted in children’s products by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, but remain poorly regulated in all other products.

Full study results and detailed information about what consumers can do is available at