Testing Products for Toxics

Orange upholstered child's chair
Child’s upholstered chair—one of the
products purchased for the flame retardant
study.

By Kara Steward

Ecology’s Reducing Toxic Threats staff look for ways to reduce toxic chemicals in our lives. Washington state is a leader in taking action on toxic chemicals like flame retardants, lead, and phthalates. Ecology supports these laws by testing consumer products to check that manufacturers are complying with limits on toxics and reporting requirements.

Washington’s toxics in products laws address:

How we enforce product laws

The only way we can determine whether products sold in Washington conform to our laws is to buy and test them. Our product testing work started in 2005 with the discovery of lead in plastic lunch boxes and toy trains.

Enforcement of state product laws is a challenge in a global marketplace. When you buy something online or in a store, the product is usually manufactured in another state or country. That product is required to meet Washington’s regulations even if it comes from somewhere else. The manufacturer or first U.S. importer is responsible for ensuring their products comply with Washington’s laws—not the retailer.

We’ve completed 25 studies and tested more than 3,000 consumer products—items like vehicle brakes, toys, clothing, personal care products, and products purchased by state agencies.

Over 80 percent of the products tested in the studies are in compliance with the regulations. When we discover a manufacturer is offering a product that doesn’t comply, we let them know. In most cases, manufacturers make changes so they comply with the laws.

Most violations are the result of a business’s lack of awareness rather than outright disregard for state requirements. Once informed, companies follow the laws. That includes submitting reports about their products and sometimes using less-toxic chemicals.

New restrictions on flame retardants

Starting July 1, 2017, Washington’s Children's Safe Products Act restricts the use of five flame retardants that are known to be toxic and found in consumer products. The law limits these chemicals in residential upholstered furniture and children’s products.

We’re nearing the end of a product testing study of flame retardants in children’s play tents, tunnels, and upholstered furniture. We purchased 85 products for the study from 18 retailers, in person and online. We’re working with manufacturers to reach 100 percent compliance as we find products containing the flame retardants. We expect to release a full report this fall.