Toxic chemicals in fan gear? That's 'March Badness'

Safer alternatives already on the market


More than seven out of 10, or 71 percent,  of university-themed products sold at top retailers contain one or more hazardous chemicals including arsenic, lead, bromine, chlorine, mercury and cadmium.

Reseachers at, a project of the the Ecology Center, tested 65 university-themed products acquired in the last two months 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 cushions, and sports jerseys purchased at major retailers including Home Depot, Kroger, Target, Walgreens, and Walmart. The products carried logos of 19 national universities including the University of Michigan, the University of Pittsburgh, the University of Connecticut, Duke University and Michigan State University.

"In college towns across America, March Madness brings with it a tremendous amount of excitement," according to 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, chlorine, cadmium, chromium, mercury, lead, antimony and tin. Researchers used high-definition x-ray fluorescence spectrometry, a non-destructive method that allows for the rapid screening of toxic chemicals in consumer products. Screening for phthalates was conducted on flexible PVC products using a different type of spectroscopy. The U.S. Consumer Products Safety Commission requires that children's products contain no more than 100 parts per million of total lead content. The CPSC has also permanently banned three types of phthalates  in children's toys and on interim basis has banned three other phthalates in childcare articles.

Several of the products tested contained banned phthalates and high levels of lead. For example, a 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 found 20 products that were rated of low concern, "illustrating the range of approaches and materials choices manufactures have taken to produce healthier products," Meuninck said. Examples include PVC-free Michigan State-themed rain gear and a University of Wisconsin PVC-free and phthalate-free grill cover, indicating 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," according to Mike Schade, director of the Mind the Store campaign at 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."

"We recommend common-sense precautions when handling these products because they may contain hazardous substances," Meuninck said. "For example, 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.
  • 72 percent (47 of 65) of the products contained at least one or more chemicals of concern, such as lead, mercury, phthalates, and toxic flame retardants.
  • More than one third (25 of 65) of the products contained at least two or more chemicals of concern.
  • Approximately 34 percent of the products (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 acrylic key ring (246 ppm) A University of Michigan deluxe key ring contained 1,230 ppm of mercury

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

EcoLink — March 2014
An online publication of the Ecology Center

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