Study: Toxic chemicals found in gardening tools
May 3rd, 2012
12:01 AM ET

Study: Toxic chemicals found in gardening tools

Planting season is here. Whether you're a seasoned gardener or a novice, a new study is raising a red flag about some of the products you might be using.

Researchers for the Ecology Center, a nonprofit environmental group tested nearly 200 common garden products and found two-thirds of them contained significant levels of one or more toxic chemicals they ranked of "high concern." The data was published on the website HealthyStuff.org.

In garden hoses, gloves, kneeling pads and a variety of tools like shovels and trowels researchers found a number of toxins including lead, phthalates and bisphenol A or BPA.  Phthalates are chemicals used to soften plastic.  They are considered endocrine disrupters which interfere with the body's hormone function and some studies have linked them to adverse developmental issues and birth defects.

BPA is another toxin used in plastics from water bottles to dental sealant.  In fact, many of the chemicals found have been linked to birth defects, impaired learning, liver toxicity and other serious health issues.

"This is another example of people assuming that products on the shelves that they're buying are safe, when infact they're largely unregulated and full of chemical hazards," said Jeff Gearhart, Research Director at the Ecology Center. "Even if you are an organic gardener, doing everything you can to avoid pesticides and fertilizers, you still may be introducing hazardous substances into your soil by using these products. The good news is that healthier choices are out there. Polyurethane or natural rubber water hoses and non-PVC tools and work gloves, are all better choices."

Ninety different types of hoses and 53 different gloves were tested. In both products, lead and phthalates were found at levels that exceeded standards set by the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC).

Researchers focused on garden hoses to see if there had been any improvement from previous studies.  For example, in one test they bought a hose, filled it with water and set it outside in the sun for 72 hours.

"We found lead migrated from the hose into the water and we found lead at a level 18 times higher than the federal drinking water standard," Gearhart said. "We found BPA in the water at a level 20 times higher than the safe drinking level. We also found the phthalate DEHP at a level 4 times higher than the federal drinking water standards.

But Neal Langerman, Ph.D., Office of the Division of Chemical Health and Safety at the American Chemical Society, says what consumers aren't told is how low the risk truly is.

"They always do their studies in such a way as to obtain as high a concentration of the chemical of interest as they can," Langerman said. "This group generally does not discuss risk. They present the hazard and they leave it at that. The closest they get to addressing risk without ever using the word is in their suggestions for reducing exposure.  Such as don't drink out of a hose.  Or run the hose for a couple minutes before you use the water.  Those are perfectly reasonable recommendations.  They happen to be risk-based but these groups never talk about risk, so the average person does not get an appreciation for the risk -all  they get is the hazard and that's a very one-sided approach."

Gearhart says the water hose findings were the most significant and his biggest concern. "Gardening products, including water hoses, are completely unregulated and often fail to meet drinking water standards that apply to other products, yet again demonstrating the complete failure of our federal chemicals regulatory system," said Gearhart. "Our children will never be safe until we reform our laws to ensure products are safe before they arrive on store shelves."

HealthyStuff.org's recommendations to consumers are: Read the labels, avoid hoses that contain the chemical polyvinylchloride or PVC.  They also recommend buying hoses that are safe for drinking water and lead-free; and that you store your hose in the shade.  "We know that temperature can increase the release of the chemical from the hose," Gearhart said.

As for gardening gloves and tools, Gearhart says avoid any that are vinyl or have a vinyl coating.

There's been plenty of ongoing controversy over the chemical BPA.  The FDA has done extensive research and reviewed hundreds of studies on the chemical.  They have maintained that to-date the scientific evidence does not suggest that very low levels of exposure through diet are unsafe.

But on March 30, 2012 they issued an interim update on BPA.   That update says in part: "Studies employing standardized toxicity tests have thus far supported the safety of current low levels of human exposure to BPA. However, on the basis of results from recent studies using novel approaches to test for subtle effects, both the National Toxicology Program at the National Institutes of Health and the FDA have some concern about the potential effects of BPA on the brain, behavior, and prostate glands in fetuses, infants, and young children. In cooperation with the National Toxicology Program, the FDA’s National Center for Toxicological Research is carrying out in-depth studies to answer key questions and clarify uncertainties about the risks of BPA." So in the meantime,the agency says, it will take "reasonable steps to reduce human exposure to BPA in the food supply."

Langerman says when using these products, the solution is simple–and common sense. "Wash your hands.  Read the recommendations and follow them as deemed appropriate.  If a consumer thinks a particular type of garden hose is worth the extra money than do it.  But if you're not using that garden hose to water vegetables for human consumption the additional money is just not of benefit.  If you are using it for human consumption, its probably worth the additional money to use a garden hose that's certified for use for drinking purposes and pay the additional costs."

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