A small group of health advocates, dog owners and Walgreens customers in Chicago called on the nation’s largest pharmacy chain to remove products that, they say, contain harmful chemicals from its shelves.
"Many major retailers in the Chicago area such as Target, Bed Bath & (Beyond), even Walmart have taken direct action to begin to remove some of the worst toxic chemicals from their products, and unfortunately, Walgreens, the flagship of Illinois, has refused to make a commitment to take action on these products," said Lynda DeLaforgue, co-director of Citizen Action/Illinois, which organized the Wednesday morning protest outside of the new Walgreens store at 410 N. Michigan Ave. in the Wrigley Building.
Organizers are turning their attention to Deerfield-based Walgreen Company, because it is the biggest U.S. drugstore chain and, they say, it should serve as a leader when it comes to safeguarding the public from unhealthy chemicals in consumer products. The products in question are both Walgreens' brand products as well as those from other manufacturers.
Today's Chicago event comes during a national "Week of Action" targeting the retailer. The protests and related events are being spearheaded by the Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families coalition, of which Citizen Action/Illinois is a member. The Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families coalition represents more than 11 million individuals, including parents, health professionals and advocates for people with learning and developmental disabilities. Over the past year, the group has gathered some 150,000 petitions nationwide calling on Walgreens to adopt a safe chemicals policy.
In April, the coalition released a study by HealthyStuff.org, a project of the Michigan-based, non-profit organization the Ecology Center, which found that some products sold at Walgreens, such as household cleaners, school supplies, pet toys and other items, tested positive for chemicals "including PVC (vinyl) plastic, phthalates, organotins and heavy metals that have been identified by state and federal authoritative government bodies to be toxic to our health."
Peter Orris, professor and chief of occupational and environmental medicine at the University of Illinois Hospital and Health Sciences System, joined the group outside of Walgreens today.
"Over the years, we have seen many patients, both children and adults, that have been poisoned by consumer products from some of these most common kinds of hazards — lead, mercury and many others," he said. "The point today is we want to be preventative. We want Walgreens to practice preventive medicine, and we want them to review their supply chain so we don't see more of these cases in the future."
The HealthyStuff.org study found, for example, high levels of phthalates in products sold at Walgreens, including a three-ring binder, vinyl shower curtain, iPod/iPhone charger and handbag purse.
"Phthalates are an extremely dangerous toxin that impacts children's ability to learn," said Citizen Action/Illinois Organizing Director John Gaudette.
Tennis balls for dogs sold at Walgreens also tested positive for high levels of lead.
"You got a kid holding that product, tossing it to the dog, who chews on it and hands it back to that kid," Gaudette added. "So both the dog and that child are being exposed to lead."
DeLaforgue noted that other countries and U.S. stores have switched out toxic chemicals in consumer products with safe alternatives.
"Walgreens still doesn't have a plan," said stressed.
Here's more from DeLaforgue and Gaudette:
The Walgreen Company issued the following statement to Progress Illinois in response to the Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families coalition's week of action:
Last week, we reached out to Safer Chemicals Healthy Families to let them know about our efforts to ensure the products we sell are safe, meet federal safety regulations and guidelines, and respond to the needs of our customers.
We have a long history of action involving product safety and working to ensure that our private brand products meet all federal safety regulations and guidelines. We have stringent requirements and proactively work with our vendors to ensure the quality and safety of the products we offer for sale. With the ongoing concern over whether certain chemicals adversely affect human health and the environment, we agree with the need to continuously and proactively work on this issue.
We recently brought to market a product line called Ology™ that is free of harmful chemicals. We also introduced a product line for newborns, infants and toddlers. Called Well Beginnings, they are free of parabens, phthalates, quaternium 15 and similar formaldehyde donor preservatives.
We believe it’s very important to emphasize that these product lines are the first retailer brands offered nationally that are formulated to be free of harmful chemicals.
Gaudette said he welcomed news that company officials "will begin to look at the problem," however, the coalition believes "they need to move much faster, because everybody's already looked at the problem for 20 years."
"Now, it's time for action," he stressed. "We're glad that they contacted us, but we're calling on Walgreens to take that next step and actually do something."
Another Consumer Worry: Antibiotic Overuse In Food Animals
Consumers are not only worried about what's in the household products they buy.
Both locally and nationally, growing attention is being paid to the fairly common practice of using non-therapeutic antibiotics in the conventional livestock industry to promote animal growth and prevent disease.
Advocates for restricting the use of antibiotics in food animals say the issue is an urgent public health problem. They say the overuse of antibiotics in livestock is making antibiotics used in medicine less effective and promoting the development of more resistant bacteria strains.
Two million people in the U.S. fall ill to an antibiotic-resistant infection each year, and 23,000 of those people die annually as a result of those infections, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)
Recent reports from the CDC and the World Health Organization found that the antibiotics used in medicine are losing their effectiveness, explained Jessica Fujan, Midwest organizer for Food & Water Watch.
People rely on antibiotics to treat minor infections from injuries as well as illnesses, and "if those antibiotics fail to work, we will be walking back in time to about the 1940s" before the introduction of antibiotics, she said.
"One of the major contributors to that scenario is our abuse of antibiotics on factory farms," Fujan said. "It's widely agreed up on ... that antibiotics are losing their effectiveness, and our job now is to respond to that as a quickly as we can to save lives."
The FDA last December issued voluntary guidelines to drug companies and livestock producers that look to "phase out production use of medically important antimicrobial products and to bring the remaining therapeutic uses under the oversight of a veterinarian." But Fujan and many other advocates for reducing the overuse of antibiotics in food animals believe the voluntary regulations fall short and will allow many of the same industry practices to continue. For example, healthy animals could still be given low doses of antibiotics for disease prevention under the the FDA's guidelines.
"It's not surprising that antibiotics are losing their effectiveness now, but I think what people have been surprised by is the refusal or unwillingness of Congress and the FDA to take precaution to prevent this public health crisis," Fujan said. "And now, people are more than willing to contact their local officials and create the groundswell of support we will need to urge Congress to take this action."
Eighty percent of the antibiotics sold in the United States are used on livestock, according to U.S. Rep. Louise M. Slaughter (D-NY,25), who is the main sponsor of a long-pending bill in the House that seeks to ban the use of non-therapeutic antibiotics in livestock production. The measure is H.R. 1150, the Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act. In the Senate, U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) has sponsored a similar bill, S. 1256, the Prevention of Antibiotic Resistance Act.
Food & Water Watch has worked with partner organizations and its members to pass 11 recent resolutions in city councils, including one in Chicago, that call on Congress to pass the two aforementioned pieces of federal legislation.
In Chicago, Ald. Ed Burke (14th) sponsored the resolution that passed through the council last month.
Food & Water Watch, Fujan said, is currently working locally in Oak Park and Evanston to pass similar city council resolutions calling on Congress to ban the "abuse of antibiotics in factory farms." She said people from across the country interested in passing similar resolutions in their city councils have also reached out to Food & Water Watch.
Several U.S. food chains, meanwhile, have moved toward the use of antibiotic-free meat as consumer demand grows for the product.
Panera Bread Company, for example, touts itself as "one of the first national restaurants to buy proteins raised without antibiotics at scale." Ten years ago, Panera voluntarily decided to purchase and serve chicken raised without antibiotics. And today, the restaurant chain offers salads and sandwiches that include antibiotic-free chicken, roasted turkey, sausage and ham.
“At the beginning, there wasn’t a national supply available, but our customers pushed us to continue the journey,” Scott Davis, Panera’s executive vice president and chief concept and innovation officer, said in a January statement marking a decade of the chain serving meat without antibiotics.
Chipotle Mexican Grill is another pioneer among national restaurant chains serving antibiotic-free meat. More recently, Chick-fil-A committed this February "to serve chicken raised without antibiotics in all Chick-fil-A restaurants, nationwide, within five years." The chain was prompted to make the announcement after 70 percent of its customers ranked antibiotic-free meat as a top issue in surveys.
Fujan said Food & Water Watch believes "there is popular demand for better practices and the food products that come from that."
"However, we cannot rely on the Chipotles and Panera Breads of the world to change the face of agriculture when there is so much big agriculture influence in our government," she continued. "[And] oftentimes, when we look for specialty goods, such as organic products, those can come at a cost that not everyone can pay. That said, we do have a lot of statements from farmers and people in the livestock industry that say the elimination of antibiotics from livestock breeding and agriculture will not cause an increase in the price of food. We think that's a positive element of our campaign, but what we don't want is to rely on a few corporations to create change that we need urgently."