EPA Slaps 99¢ Only Chain for Selling Hazardous Products

EPA Slaps 99¢ Only Chain for Selling Hazardous Products

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Those bargain cleaning products at the dollar stores may not be worth the health hazards they pose.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency just fined the discount chain 99¢ Only Stores more than $400,000 for selling unregulated and mislabeled pesticides.

The penalty is the largest ever ordered by a judge against a retailer for failure to comply with a federal law that requires all pesticides sold in the United States to be registered with the EPA. The law includes disinfectants and household cleaners that claim to kill germs.

The products include the household cleaners Bref Limpieza y Disinfección Total con Densicloro, or Bref Complete Cleaning and Disinfection with Densicloro, which was imported from Mexico, and Farmer's Secret Berry and Produce Cleaner, both of which were not registered with the EPA. The other product involved was PiC BORIC ACID Roach Killer III, which was mislabeled.

In addition to the fine, the discount chain was also ordered to remove the products from store shelves.

EPA attorney Bryan Riedel, who worked on the case, said 99¢ Only Stores contested the fine, so the case went to trial, which resulted in the recent ruling.

In the decision, the judge found that 99¢ Only Stores had a "culture of indifference" that contributed to slow removal of the illegal products from store shelves.

"It took 10 months to get the Bref cleaner off stores' shelves," he said. At least 650 bottles of the cleaner were sold, according to invoices requested during the investigation.

The Commerce, Calif.-based 99¢ Only Stores did not return New America Media's repeated calls requesting comment.

The illegal products were found during random checks by EPA inspectors at retail stores in California and Nevada between 2004 and 2008. Riedel says 99¢ has agreed to remove the products and began doing so in 2006.

The EPA says it has not followed up to see if the chain has actually removed the products. But the agency's inspectors routinely pay unannounced visits to stores to check for compliance.

The random checks and, in some cases, hefty fines are intended to deter retailers from breaking the law.

In order to do that, a fine must be significantly big compared to the company's profits, says Caroline Cox, research director with the Oakland-based Center for Environmental Health.

"With a big enough fine," she said, "you make a company pay attention."

The discount store chain reported a net income of $60 million in the fiscal year ending in March.

Cox says the EPA is doing what it should be doing by checking for unregulated products. She added that registered products have to undergo a certain level of safety tests.

"If it's not registered, there's a small possibility it went through that testing process, but more than likely it didn't," Cox said, "so we don't know if the product is okay or not."

Products registered with the EPA also are required to list instructions for proper use and safety on its labels.

Riedel said the unregulated cleaner Bref was imported from Mexico and had labels in Spanish claiming that it disinfected and cleaned surfaces.

"The label of Bref was completely in Spanish," Riedel said. "A non-Spanish speaker would not know [what the warning label] says regarding proper use of Bref." The cleaner contains bleach, he says, and could produce a deadly colorless and odorless chlorine gas if inappropriately mixed with ammonia cleaners or acid.

The unregulated produce cleaner claimed to kill E. coli bacteria, which the manufacturer would have to prove if it were a registered product, says Julie Jordan, an EPA enforcement officer.

The 99¢ Only chain has more than 200 stores in California. The outlets are located "all over the city," says Cynthia Knowles, a toxics reduction specialist with San Francisco’s environmental department. Although they can pop up in upscale neighborhoods, the stores are usually located in low-income neighborhoods.

Besides selling unregulated products, Knowles says, discount and dollar stores sell many products by obscure brands that are very cheap and poorly made.

Knowles recently conducted an inventory of the ingredients in cleaning products in dollar stores and other retailers, including Safeway and Walgreen’s, in order to identify products that contained chemicals that could trigger respiratory problems, such as asthma.

Most of the cleaners she surveyed contained toxic chemicals, and they were available at all the stores. But the difference, Knowles says, is that the cleaners for sale in the discount stores lacked any labeling information.

"You can't find ingredients on cleaning products in dollar stores -- on the labels or on the website of the manufacturers," Knowles states. "So, we didn't study those products