Low income families often live in communities surrounded by toxic refineries and other dangerous industries, further increasing exposure.
AUSTIN, Texas — On July 1, activists gathered at dollar stores nationally to declare their “independence” from toxic chemicals, after a report earlier this year suggested products sold by these discount chains could be hurting consumers.
To produce the report, issued in February by Environmental Justice for All’s Campaign for Healthier Solutions, researchers tested 164 products from multiple discount chain stores nationwide and found that 133 contained “at least one hazardous chemical above levels of concern,” meaning that 81% of tested products were hazardous. These include chemicals identified to be carcinogenic, capable of causing developmental disabilities in children, or were otherwise found at levels considered toxic. Unlike major chains like Wal-Mart and Target, no major dollar store chain has a formal policy on selling or disclosing toxic ingredients in products.
In Austin, Texas, the campaign partnered with local activists from Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services (TEJAS) and Texas Campaign for the Environment. Dressed in white hazardous material-handling suits, they gathered in front of a Family Dollar store on the south side of the city to chant and hold protest signs and banners.
Family Dollar, already one of the nation’s largest chains, is in the process of being acquired by Dollar Tree, making it potentially an even bigger part of the market selling these dangerous products to the poor.
Deyadira Treviño, a Houston-based TEJAS community organizer and community health worker, told MintPress News that families living in poverty may have no choice but to shop at discount stores because of their limited budgets, but as informed consumers they could still put pressure on these chains to make more responsible decisions.
“Our collective purchasing power has the strength to say we will not support any stores production of toxic products which lead to dumping of hazardous products in marginalized communities,” Treviño said. She told MintPress that she comes to this protest not just as an activist and community member, but also as a mother expecting her second child.
Treviño emphasized that the poor are especially vulnerable not just because they may not be able to afford to purchase higher quality products, but also because their communities often face a higher risk of exposure already.
“It is these communities which are stuck with not only dollar stores and their toxic products, but also find themselves surrounded by refineries and other toxic producing industries,” she said. “Low-income communities and communities of color from which dollar stores draw much of their profits cannot afford additional toxic exposures.”
After rallying outside the store, where they chanted and handed out fliers to interested customers, protesters filed inside where Andrew Dobbs, program director for Texas Campaign for the Environment, attempted to deliver a letter to the manager on duty outlining consumers’ and activists’ concerns.
Although the manager refused to accept their letter, Dobbs told MintPress that the protest was a success and the campaign would continue.
“It was raining before we got there but ended up being sunny and bright. We got a lot of honks and support,” he said afterward. “We had a lot of customers, folks who shop right there at Family Dollar coming up to us and we were able to give them fliers to help educate them about the risks that their families are facing due to the short-sighted policies of this company.”
Dobbs acknowledged that the local manager has little control over the store’s products, but by putting pressure on individual stores, the activists hope to send a message to the upper management that do have decision-making power in the chain.
“In an ideal situation, Family Dollar would adopt a chemical policy that includes a list of chemicals they will not tolerate in their stores anymore.” he said. “They need to leverage their buying power to make producers clean up their act.”
In addition to these protests, the campaign includes educators that go door-to-door in the neighborhoods near the discount stores in Austin, Houston and Dallas to alert potential customers to the dangers of toxic products.
“We will generate dozens if not hundreds of letters a week to these companies demanding that they change this, until they do,” Dobbs said.