Toxic chemicals found in common picnic supplies

Hazardous additives 'even follow us into the outdoors'

An Ecology Center analysis of picnic products sold at the top ten national retailers found that most have one or more hazardous chemicals linked to serious health problems.

“It’s outrageous that we can’t even enjoy the outdoors without these industrial hazards coming along for the ride,” according to Jeff Gearhart, research director at the Ecology Center and lead researcher on the study.

“Our testing shows that there is no escaping toxic chemicals. They show up everywhere: they’re in our cars, our homes, our offices and now we know they even follow us into the outdoors.”

In an analysis released earlier this month, the Ecology Center tested 58 common outdoor picnic products and found lead, phthalates, hazardous flame retardants, organotins and other substances that have been linked to asthma, birth defects, learning disabilities, reproductive problems, liver toxicity and cancer.

Many of the substances found in the picnic products have already been restricted or banned in children’s products, according to Gearhart.

Products tested included tablecloths, placemats, picnic baskets, coolers, water toys, folding chairs and umbrellas purchased from eight of the top 10 national retailers: Lowes, Home Depot, Walgreens, CVS, Target, Walmart, Kroger and Costco.

The Ecology Center is collaborating with Mind the Store, a national campaign to persuade these retailers to remove toxic chemicals from the shelves of their stores.  More information can be found at

The results were released Aug. 8 on, which also includes prior research on toys, car seats, pet products, cars, women’s handbags, back-to-school products and children’s car seats. tested picnic products for chemicals based on their toxicity or tendency to build up in people and the environment. These chemicals include lead, bromine (brominated flame retardants), chlorine (PVC and chlorinated flame retardants), cadmium, arsenic, tin (organotins), phthalates and mercury.

Phthalates -- chemical additives used to soften PVC products -- were prominent in vinyl tablecloth, vinyl coated fabric chairs, water toys and garden hoses. Nearly a quarter--22 percent--of the commercial use of one phthalate, DEHP, is in outdoor products.

Phthalate compounds leach, migrate, or off-gas from PVC-containing items into air, dust, water, soils, sediments, and food.

"While indoor exposures to phthalates is the most critical source of exposure, outdoor products can release phthalates when stored indoors and increase overall phthalate release in the environment," Gearhart said. "These chemicals have become ubiquitous environmental contaminants and have been associated with number of adverse health effects."

2008 European study found an association between concentrations of phthalates in indoor dust and wheezing among preschool children.

Some phthalates also have endocrine-disrupting properties, meaning that they can disturb normal hormonal processes, often at low levels of exposure. Other studies have demonstrated possible links between phthalates and adverse impacts on the reproductive system, kidneys, liver and blood.

Children and pets are particularly vulnerable, since they are frequently close to the ground and therefore have high levels of exposure, according to Gearhart.

Many of the substances found in the picnic products have already been restricted or banned in children’s products, according to Gearhart. "Fortunately, the test data also showed that many products did not contain dangerous substances, proving that safer products can be made."

Highlights of Findings from’s Picnic Study:

What did we find?

  • Almost all (96 percent) products contained at least one or more chemicals of concern at detectable levels (40 ppm). One-third (36 percent) had three or more.
  • Forty percent (23 of 58) contained PVC or chlorinated flame retardants (chlorine above 3,500 ppm) and 7 percent (4 of 58) contained brominated flame retardants (bromine above 400 ppm).
  • Hazardous heavy metals were also found in picnic products; 31 percent (18 of 58) had levels of antimony above 100 ppm; 22 percent (13 of 58) had levels of tin above 100 ppm.
  • Four products contained levels of lead above 100 ppm including a fabric tablecloth that contained 1/4 pound of lead weights (4 one ounce lead weights sewn into each corner).
  • Four products contained one or more phthalates. A folding chair with a vinyl coating contained 17.1 percent by weight phthalates (16 percent DEHP and 1.1 percent DINP) and over 1,000 ppm antimony.

Worst Products By Retailer?


  • Entertain Weighted Fabric Tablecloth: 1/4 pound of lead weights (4 one-ounce lead weights sewn into the corners)
  • Entertain Easy Carry Picnic Tote: material contained 6.5 percent by weight phthalates (DEHP)
  • Banzai Wigglin Water Sprinkle Hose on water toy contained 0.26 percent by weight phthalates (0.19 percent DINP and 0.07 percent DIDP)
  • Room Essentials 50 ft. Light Duty Hose contained 16 percent phthalates


  • Living Solutions Folding Chair Chair fabric vinyl coating contained 17.1 percent by weight phthalates (16 percent DEHP and 1.1 percent DINP) and over 1,000 ppm antimony Walmart
  • Mainstays Vinyl Table Protector (Clear) contained 8.4 percent by weight phthalates (8.4 percent DIDP)
  • Mainstays Vinyl Placemat (Red) contained 6.4 percent phthalates (DIDP)
  • Flexon Medium Duty Garden Hose contained 16.8 percent by weight phthalates (16 percent DEHP, 0.06 percent DIDP and 1,900 ppm DINP)


  • Garden Treasure Folding Arm Chair (Black): Vinyl grommets on chair contain 7.9 percent (79,000 ppm) by weight lead. The grommet material also contains brominated flame retardants (9,393 ppm bromine), organotins (4,791 ppm tin) and antimony (70,844 ppm).
  • Apex Light Duty Garden Hose contained 11.3 percent by weight phthalates (DEHP, DIDP, DINP)

Home Depot

  • Swan Fairlawn Light Duty Hose contained 14.5 percent by weight phthalates (DEHP, DIDP, DINP)

The picnic products were tested with a high-definition X-Ray Fluorescence (XRF) analyzer. In addition to wide scientific applicaitons, XRF has been used by the Environmental Protection Agency to screen packaging; by the Food & Drug Administration to screen food; and by many state and county health departments to screen for residential lead paint.

Additional samples were analyzed by laboratories using EPA test methods.

Bipartisan legislation called the “Chemical Safety Improvement Act,” was recently introduced in Congress to update a law first adopted in 1976 and now woefully inadequate and out of date. But most health and environment advocates say the new proposal is laden with red ink and other flaws and must be made stronger before it is enacted. 

“While Congress debates, retailers can make immediate changes that will protect their customers,” said Andy Igrejas, executive director of Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families. “Those changes will ripple across the marketplace and earn customer loyalty while making us all healthier.” 

EcoLink — August 2013 Ecolink
An online publication of the Ecology Center

Comments and questions are welcome.
Please send to EcoLink Editor.

IMPORTANT NOTE: ratings do not provide a measure of health risk or chemical exposure associated with any individual product, or any individual element or related chemical.