Toxic Products - Amusing Anecdotes
USA 2016: consumer products which off-gas toxic chemicals are common, and becoming ever more difficult to avoid. From clothing, furniture and appliances to tools and building supplies, that carcinogenic "made in China smell" is slowly poisoning millions so that global corporations can earn higher profits.
Why is this happening? It's quite simple: by subcontracting manufacturing activities to unregulated cheap labor countries like China, companies can reduce production costs and thereby increase profits.
What exactly is happening? Chemical engineering is difficult and expensive to do right, but much easier and cheaper to do wrong. Whether it's worker safety, polluting nearby water supplies, or protecting end-users, it's just a whole lot cheaper for a chemical factory to dispense with the rules and skip some (or all) separation and purification steps. While you can't get away with that in the US, you sure can in China.
So let's imagine that hypothetical Chinese Chemical Factory ships its product (say PVC, polyvinyl chloride resin - a basic chemical used in millions of products) with labels stating 99.9% purity. But in fact it's only 95% purity. Sure, it contains 5% impurities... but so what?... it looks exactly the same, so who's going to know? It's very expensive to check, profits are at stake, and schedules are tight... so nobody checks it. That 5% impurities is a stew of thousands of chemical compounds, products of unintentional "side reactions" to the intended synthesis. Many of them are known toxic, and many are not yet known to be toxic.
Now let's imagine that barrel of impure (and deceptively labeled) PVC arrives at Chinese Luggage Factory to be used as one component in another complex process - the manufacture of luggage. There are many chemicals and materials used in this factory: plastic resins, rubbers, plasticizers, leather (itself processed in numerous tanning chemicals), dyes, glues, etc. All of these come from external suppliers and may well contain their own toxic impurities. Now as they're combined to create final products, even more mystery impurities are born. In short: the supply chain has become untrustworthy, and so it is nearly impossible for the management of Chinese Luggage Factory to produce a good product, even if they wanted to. The toxic luggage is boxed, containerized, shipped 5000 miles, and soon stinking up closets all over America.
When the immense complexities of real industrial processes are considered, it quickly becomes obvious that even slightly untrustworthy supply chains of basic chemicals and materials will rapidly spread out and mutate further upon combination, undermining attempts to create safe, quality products.
What is to be done? In the US, one might expect that a giant federal regulatory agency like the EPA or Department of Commerce would step up to protect the public from the avalanche of toxic imports, but with rare exceptions (as when they are embarrassed into reacting because of public outrage over toxic dog treats from China), this doesn't seem to be happening. Nope, sorry folks... you're on your own.
In Europe, at least there is an effort by government to protect: regulatory regimes on imports like the EU's REACH (Registration, Evaluation, Authorization and estriction of CHemicals) which attempt to police over 1000 chemicals in products entering the EU are well intentioned and will force improvement on the Chinese chemical engineering infrastructure. However, since the chemical testing is performed in the country of origin, and on a tiny percentage of product, it seems impossible to thoroughly enforce. REACH is a band-aid solution which doesn't address the primary problem: it is impossible to police the industrial economies of foriegn countries.
This much seems obvious: on the grounds of protecting national health and domestic supply chain integrity, importation of basic chemicals and materials from countries with untrustworthy supply chains must be immediately and fully halted. If this is done, at least "Made in USA" would mean something, since all ingredients would be sourced from a trusted domestic supply chain. As we stand now, domestic production can and does contain imported toxic ingredients - so it is nearly impossible for the American consumer to trust anything.
The ultimate solution is withdrawl from globalism. Fully domestic supply chains, which can be fully monitored and policed for purity and honest labeling, are the bedrock upon which a healthy, wealthy, and advanced economy can be built.
A Tale of Enduring Low-Grade Stank: The Eye-Irritating, Headache-Inducing, IKEA Leather Sofa (Made in China), 2015-16
In March 2015, Kiri and I had completed the office area of our new shop and were excited to have a comfortable place to sit or take a nap. We headed over to IKEA in Emeryville, CA and liked the black leather Karlstad sofa. Although pricey at $899, it seemed well made and cleanable which was important for this environment. Despite some misgivings about Chinese product quality based on incidents over the prior several months, we trusted IKEA and got it.
Once in place, an odor was immediately apparent. It wasn't quite a leather odor, but seemed to come from the leather. Hard to describe this smell... didn't knock you over, but was steady, low and dank... chemically, yet organic.
We, of course, assumed it was new and "just needed to air out". The room was exhaust vented 24-7, so it would get better. Right??
There were all sorts of newly bought and constructed things in this room, so the general room odor wasn't so easy to correlate with a source. Was it paint? Was it Chinese plywood? Was it a machine? Sawdust? Near the sofa didn't smell so bad because that's where the fresh air came in. Wild goose chases and false accusations ensued.
Months went by and the room always had an annoying odor, vaguely downwind of the sofa. A correlation was noticed between being near this sofa and getting headaches and eye irritation. Sleeping on the sofa usually resulted in hangover-like symptoms.
Finally a definitive experiment: I removed the sofa from the room. The results were quick and conclusive: the smell and symptoms went away. The IKEA sofa had been the problem all along.
We brought it back to the store and the staff was polite about taking it back and refunding our money, even though it had been 14 months since purchase. They were suspiciously polite, even asking if we'd been to the doctor because of the symptoms, while taking notes.
What was being off-gassed from this thing? Will there be long-term health effects? We'll never know. And that's the problem with chronic low level chemical exposure: nobody fully understands what's going on, and nobody is held responsible.
Still stinky after 14 months... An IKEA Karlstat sofa like this one, with apparently incorrectly tanned leather, caused room odor, eye irritation and headaches for 14 months until returned for refund.
A few of the 10 million
known chemical compounds. Under 10 thousand have been tested for toxicity.
chemical engineering in China
The only indication that it's made in China is this tag on the bottom of the sofa. The product description tag on the display model only says "Design and Quality IKEA of Sweeden".
The Grizzly 4002 Lathe: Weak Quality, Strong Odor (Made in China), 2015
Grizzly 4002 lathe with paint-job of epic badness. After all else had failed, had to painstakingly epoxy coat entire machine to "lock in" nasty chemical odor.
This is a weird case. It's usually soft materials which off-gas, especially rubberized plastics. But in this case it was a metal machine, actually the paint on that machine which off-gassed. I suppose this isn't so surprising, paint is a complex organic compound, and there are plenty of ways to make it wrong.
I'll give Grizzly Industrial some credit: they are making an earnest effort to make real machine tools available to ordinary un-rich people. That often means low cost mainland Chinese machine tools which come with issues... some big, some small, most solvable with effort and skill. Despite all the annoyance that usually accompanies such a new machine, we must acknowledge that even the worst real lathe is infinitely better than not having one at all. They're big and complex, so for under $3k, delivered in working condition, one can't expect Rolls Royce quality.
This machine started life OK with a reasonable spindle and bed, then sat around for a while rusting until somebody got the order to prep it for delivery to Grizzly. That involved painting it green. The paint was horribly mis-made and never cured properly... it stunk and never slowed down stinking. The smell was similar to uncured 5 minute epoxy. This paint was applied haphazardly even onto precision surfaces like the carriage gear rack where it had to be painstakingly removed with acetone and wire brush.
After thorough cleaning, filing sharp edges, replacing junk fasteners, etc. it seemed like an OK machine; except that the chemical stink wasn't dissipating.
Maybe the paint needed heat to cure and they'd forgotten to do it? On this theory I tented it and put a space heater in there with it and left it for a few days. No luck. Maybe not hot enough... I spent a day cooking it with a hot air gun, at least I'd drive off any volatiles... it HAD to help. But it didn't, it only stunk up the place worse.
OK, maybe there's a "surface blush" of uncured material which can happen with epoxies... I'll do an acetone wipe. It will dull the paint, but maybe it will get rid of the stink. No luck. More scrubbing with various solvents. Nothing dents this stink. It's not solvents in the paint offgassing, but seems to be the paint itself sublimating. God only knows how much carcinogen I've huffed.
Grizzly wants me to send it back for them to examine, but that's a big chore with a 900 pound thing: building a crate, renting a cherry picker, arranging shipping.
Maybe it just needs time... but after 3 months it still stunk just as bad as day 1. So I decided to try one last thing: "lock in" the odor by "painting" (actually dabbing on with foam brush) every bit of the green with Tap Marine Grade Epoxy. It worked! The machine now looks goofy, since it's covered with lumpy layer of glue, but at least it doesn't stink.
Where does the blame lie? Grizzly as the seller? The Chinese painting contractor? The Chinese paint manufacturer? Or perhaps the paint manufacturer was blameless and was sold a bogus batch of paint precursor chemical by a Chinese chemical company. I'll never know. Probably Grizzly won't either - they're in over their heads. The root problem is wild-west globalism, and the destruction of supply chain trustworthiness that comes with it.
"painting" the G4002 lathe with epoxy to halt stinking
The Cursed Western Pack Backpack circa 2010
I had used a black Western Pack backpack for years. It was a high quality, low cost Chinese product. I beat on that thing - routinely carrying ridiculous amounts of weight in it, often sharp hard things, and it stood up well. But it was finally wearing out in places, so I bought a new one at the same shop. Exactly the same product, only blue.
This new backpack had a disconcerting odor... you know the one: that acrid rubberized fabric odor. Wow, it really hit you when you left the room for a while and then returned to its presence. I should have brought it back to the shop immediately, but I'd already chucked the old one, and as usually happens with these cases, I thought it just "needed to air out" for a while. So began a multi-month battle... a battle between a stupid stubborn human and a toxic inanimate object.
The first order of bushiness was to put it outside for a couple of days where the sun and breeze would surely clear the smell out. Hmmm, didn't work.
Perhaps it was contaminated with an oil-based substance... hot soapy water should get rid of that. I submerged it in a bucket of very hot, very soapy water and agitated with a broom stick. Gave it a good long washing. The next morning it was dry and I was surprised to find that the odor was still present, but convinced myself a few percent improvement had been achieved. I was making progress and I'd already invested labor, so it would be crazy to give up now.
How about heat? I brought it to the laundromat and put it in a big dryer set "high" and dumped many quarters in. An hour at 150 degrees F... I'd like to see any odor survive THAT. Well, it survived it, and it was becoming clear that I wasn't dealing with an ordinary stink.
I submerged it in solutions of various substances, including baking soda, vinegar and ammonia. No luck. I drove cross country in a convertible, leaving the pack in the backseat the whole way... 80mph wind and sun for 3 days. The stink maybe decreased 2%.
I decided to just use it, even with the odor, because to throw it out now was to admit defeat. I would just put it far away in a hallway when not in use.
At some point, the foolishness of this exercise hit me. This smell wasn't on the material, it WAS the material, and it was NEVER going to go away as long as a gram of that backpack still existed in solid form. It was like a cursed Airwick air freshener that slowly disappeared by smelly sublimation.
A little chemistry knowledge was a dangerous thing for those who created this backback. It was time to let go and put it in the trash.