A Michigan-based environmental nonprofit is claiming it found high levels of arsenic in a University of Minnesota Gophers key ring purchased from a major retailer on the Twin Cities campus.
Officials from the Ecology Center tested 65 different fan products from 19 different universities for toxic substances, like lead, arsenic and mercury. Of those products, 46 contained at least one or more chemicals they said were a “concern,” including a University-branded key ring purchased from the Walgreens on Washington Avenue, though the test’s validity has been disputed.
While standards for arsenic have been established for things like groundwater and children’s toys, there aren’t clear limits set on consumer products like the University key ring, which is marketed to adults. This leaves chemicals like arsenic in a strange gray area, regulated in some products but not others.
“We tested a wide range of university gear, sports-themed products,” said Ecology Center Research Director Jeff Gearhart. “Most of the chemicals that we’re screening for, many of them are not covalently bonded to the material, so they are prone to being released.”
Since the chemicals they screened for weren’t chemically bonded to the products, Gearhart said, he’s worried that they could potentially come off and get into the body. There, arsenic can lead to skin problems, heart disease and cancer.
John Killen, President of WinCraft Inc., the company that produces the University key ring tested, said their products meet all the regulation standards required by their licensees and state and federal law.
“We’re the longest-standing licensee with the NFL, so we take testing very seriously,” he said. “We’re compliant with Disney. We’re audited and certified by Wal-Mart and their testing organizations. We’ve passed all the quality standards for the NFL, Major League Baseball, NBA, NCAA.”
Killen said the company’s engineers test their products for quality standards annually. When those products don’t meet standards, Killen said, they send them to certified labs to find out why.
But Killen said he doesn’t trust the results from the Ecology Center, since WinCraft’s tests showed up negative for any sign of arsenic.
“We didn’t find any levels of anything that would be inappropriate,” he said.
Killen said he hopes the Ecology Center is willing share their test results so that the issue can be resolved.
The differences in their test results may be due to different testing methods or different equipment, Gearhart said. In the seven years that the Ecology Center has been performing these tests, he said, they haven’t found any inaccurate readings.
Carlson School of Management supply chains and operations professor Enno Siemsen, an expert in product development, said it’s common to find quality problems even when something is highly regulated, especially if a company makes cost-saving decisions like switching suppliers.
“The blame for this can fall on many,” he said. The manufacturer may not be careful with their suppliers, the retailers may not regulate where they get their products or the government may not establish proper regulations, he said.
The Ecology Center is testing products partially to push for more regulation, said Deanna White, co-director of Healthy Legacy, a Minnesota-based partner of the Ecology Center.
“You see more federal action on chemicals like lead,” she said. “One of the challenges that exist when we talk about chemicals like arsenic is that the policy framework … is broken.”
White said the government doesn’t have enough regulations on arsenic and she hopes these tests will pressure institutions like the University to set higher standards for manufacturers who license out their brand name.
University Trademark Licensing Director David Lindquist said in a written statement that their licensing agent, Collegiate Licensing Company, is reviewing the Ecology Center report and testing products against its findings per the University’s request.
“Consumer product safety is critical, with any officially licensed University of Minnesota product,” he said in the statement, “and we appreciate efforts that bring attention to product safety.”
The Ecology Center’s results showed an arsenic level of 246 parts per million in the University key ring. In drinking water, where arsenic is naturally present, the Environmental Protection Agency requires levels below 0.01 parts per million.
Ultimately, White said she hopes their tests will open up dialogue and make regulations for things like arsenic less ambiguous.
“It’s going to take retailers, manufacturers, consumers, governments, nonprofits, all working together to fix this,” she said.