Jeff Gearhart thinks it is important to remember that children are more vulnerable than adults to certain types of chemical exposure. As the founder of HealthyStuff.org, the consumer product testing arm of the Ecology Center in Ann Arbor, he has tested thousands of products as research director. Two recent studies look at car seats and school supplies, and his team has also tested toys, cars, cell phones and everyday products for lead, flame retardants and other concerning chemicals.
"As parents, we all want to protect and raise kids who are as healthy as possible. We want to make good decisions about what we purchase and avoid hazards, but it's difficult to get good information," Gearhart says.
Why do you advocate for child environmental safety?
You cannot assume that exposure that does not impact an adult doesn’t impact a child. They are going through neurological development and different systems of the body are developing. For far too long, product screening has not been based on assessing impact on vulnerable populations, like children.
What is HealthStuff.org's origin story?
The genesis was eight years ago, when we had been looking at chemical hazards in vehicles. Tests were quite expensive, so I figured out a rapid screening methodology in order to test more vehicles. We quickly realized that we could apply the same methodology to other products. Within a year, we were looking at toys. It grew from there.
How can testing products create positive changes in the world?
We were very involved in screening toys during the period of time when there were literally millions of products being recalled because of high levels of lead. When we started testing toys, seven years ago, about 13 percent had levels of lead that exceeded government standards. Within three years, we saw that go down to 3 percent or 4 percent.
We constantly see positive changes. It's easier to make good choices as the market for alternative, healthier products has developed. It is really pro-business and pro-innovation to phase out toxins, and those manufacturers are winning in the marketplace. But it's still difficult because labeling ingredients on non-consumable products is not required.
Are you finding less toxins in kid-related products these days?
We're seeing shifts in car seat companies. With toys, we've seen things get better. However, the manufacturer may stop using one hazardous chemical but then substitute in another chemical that causes problems. There has been a little bit of a treadmill of regretful substitutions.
What led you to your current work?
I have an M.A. in environmental science from the U of M. I've been at the Ecology Center for 18 years working on a range of environmental issues, primarily related to chemical exposure from manufacturing plants and air quality issues, and I've provided technical support to community groups dealing with pollution and contamination.
What are some of your goals?
We want to drive the marketplace to where companies volunteer disclosures of hazards and composition information on their products. And eventually we need better public policy to regulate hazards in products, especially for children.