Lab work

Behind the Scenes with Healthy Stuff, Part 1: Little Lab, Big Impact

This article is the first in a three-part series exploring the story behind the Ecology Center’s Healthy Stuff project, which tests household products for toxic chemicals and reports on its findings.

The core ideas that motivate the Ecology Center’s Healthy Stuff program are simple. People should know about the chemicals that surround us and affect our bodies. If we find out something being made and sold is causing harm to health, we should act to stop that harm. “It matters because our chemical laws don’t protect us,” Healthy Stuff Senior Scientist Gillian Miller explains.

The laws that we have in the U.S. to regulate toxic chemicals are weak and consistently fail to protect our health. The EPA holds data for just a sliver of the tens of thousands of chemicals in the U.S. market today, and it’s issued restrictions on only a handful of chemical classes. The chemical composition of our marketplace is a contemporary reality that feels disconcertingly like the myth of the old Wild West: unregulated and largely unknown.

Healthy Stuff aims to help fix those problems of chemical ignorance and inaction. Across the past twelve years, Healthy Stuff has built a large following and a major national presence. Our public database of information includes over 15,000 products tested since 2007, spanning everything from children’s toys to dairy farm equipment.  

Our work’s significance may be best underscored by its familiarity to folks who couldn’t tell you anything about Healthy Stuff or who wouldn’t recognize the Ecology Center’s name. Whether you’ve searched our site or not, your children probably play with new toys free of lead. Even as recently as 10 years ago, many toys on store shelves were contaminated. Healthy Stuff has helped identify sources of exposure that continue to linger in our market. Maybe you’ve never given dairy farm equipment a second thought, but you saw last summer’s New York Times article on our research about phthalates in cheese powder in boxed mac n’ cheese and other dairy products. It was was one of the Times’ top ten most-read pieces for a full week. Healthy Stuff led the product testing for the Klean Up Kraft campaign as part of the Coalition for Safer Food and Packaging, and we’re continuing to investigate the larger landscape of United States’ dairy supply chain.

People are often surprised to find out that these high-impact scientific findings and publicity campaigns are grassroots in origin. You might assume work like this must come out of a large facility at a university or a private research institute—and occasionally it does; it’s critical for us to partner with other nonprofit, academic, and private sector research groups and facilities to maximize our effectiveness. Overwhelmingly, though, the scientific testing comes out of the Ecology Center’s tiny in-house lab. Our product testing happens in a lab space of just 15 by 15 feet, plus a storage alcove. If you removed the equipment and divided the room, it might house a cluster of four or five desk cubicles. In a home, it could make an average-sized master bedroom with the addition of windows.

Here’s what you’d see if you walked into the lab. Straight through the door stands a big piece of equipment that resembles a glass museum display case. A bench to the right holds a nondescript gray instrument on a table that is far more powerful than it looks, a handheld device that looks a bit like a speed cop’s radar gun, a computer station for data analysis, and a rack of tiny test tubes holding material samples. Shelves line most of the other walls, stacked with papers and a rotating assortment of products, when they fit. This summer, office conference tables also saw stacks of baby crib mattresses, barbeque tools and pool party supplies, commercial carpet square samples, and food service glove boxes, among other items.

We hunt for chemical unknowns efficiently and cost-effectively, and we manage it by focusing on rapid screening techniques. This is different from most university and corporate labs. Both routinely spend hundreds of dollars per sample for full chemistry lab testing. Commercial labs often decline to look for unknowns and instead screen for a predetermined list of chemicals in which they specialize. University research is more exploratory but often sees a longer lag between discovery and public use of new knowledge.

The Ecology Center was one of the first organizations to pioneer the idea that a small nonprofit could help discover and remove toxic chemicals from our marketplace more quickly by daring to tackle a campaign all the way from beginning to end, from scientific analysis through public advocacy. We remain one of fewer than a dozen groups doing this kind of work. Some of the other organizations who now do similar work, like Center for Environmental Health and Toxic-Free Future, broke into it with help from us and remain frequent campaign partners.

The people behind the projects make them successful. Our research sees the light of day in public because of the dedication of a team of four: Jeff Gearhart, Gillian Miller, Lauren Olson, and Melissa Cooper Sargent. They combine strategic and scientific expertise to help Healthy Stuff punch way above its weight for what you might expect from such a small group.

Jeff, who started the program, describes his job as "helping where needed and trying to come up with new directions." Gillian oversees the scientific research process, including academic literature review, product testing, methodology, data analysis, and scientific report writing. Melissa works on translating our scientific findings into societal change, conveying our research findings to the public in consumer-friendly ways and working with manufacturers to shift the marketplace toward healthier products. Lauren does a lot of the interactive work that keeps the gears moving throughout the life of a project: she helps coordinate research activities, advocacy campaigns, funding grants, and reports within our team and with partner organizations. She also teaches health professionals about toxics and other sustainability topics.  

To maximize impact, all four team members work with partner organizations throughout the Healthy Stuff process, from deciding what to study at the outset of a research project to choosing tactics for a public campaign after that project is complete. Healthy Stuff’s unique, comprehensive strategy delivers remarkable results. We make new chemical discoveries, raise public awareness, and influence manufacturers, retailers, and lawmakers to create a healthier material marketplace.

Learn more about the lifecycle of a research project and about the history of Healthy Stuff in our next installments.