OWATONNA — It was another fun-filled day for 7-year-old Peyton Schultz as she strolled through the Steele County Fairgrounds with her grandma and grandpa. It was the last day of the fair and Schultz had been lucky enough to attend every single day.
As her grandpa, Chris Utoft, waited in line for a bucket of cookies, Schultz went with her grandma to pick a toy from a vendor set up on the north side of the fairgrounds. Both Schultz and her 4-year-old sister selected one of their favorite toys to be their final keepsake of the 2019 Steele County Free Fair: slime.
“I like slime,” Schutlz exclaimed with a toothy grin. “I like to make necklaces out of it and stretch it out on the table and try to make bubbles.”
A couple days later, Schultz was happily playing with her pink goopy-gloopy slime at her grandparents’ home in Owatonna when Utoft become concerned with the overwhelming odor that had filled the room.
“It was foul,” Utoft said as he wrinkled his nose with disgust. “It had a distinct chemical smell and as they played with it the smell started to get worse.”
Having never smelt anything like that before, Utoft examined the bottle that the slime came in. Horrified by why he saw, he immediately had his wife give the granddaughters a bath as he discarded the toy, keeping only a little so that he could show the public what he found.
On the side of the tubes that contained the slime, a small warning label reading “Proposition 65” was slapped on. The warning read as following:
“This product may contain chemicals known by the State of California to cause cancer and/or birth defects or other reproductive harm.”
“Grandpa has cancer,” Schultz said, very matter-of-fact.
Around Thanksgiving, Utoft thought he had come down with the flu. When he wasn’t feeling any better a month later he decided to make a doctor’s appointment, though he didn’t think much of it. Utoft said it felt like it was coming out of left field when he was diagnosed with terminal adenocarcinoma esophageal cancer.
Since then, Utoft said he has become hyper-observant of the various products his family consumes, whether it be food, clothing, or toys. When he discovered that his granddaughters had been playing with something with a Proposition 65 warning, he immediately felt compelled to do something about it.
“This is the same warning they put on fishing equipment,” Utoft said, describing the lead sinkers that many fishermen in Minnesota are well acquainted with. “But this is different. This is targeted at our kids.”
Proposition 65 requires businesses to provide warnings to Californians about significant exposures to chemicals that cause cancer, birth defects, or other reproductive harm. These chemicals can be in the products that Californians purchase, in their homes or workplaces, or that are released into the environment. Proposition 65 became California law in 1986.
“California has always been ahead on stuff like this,” Utoft said. “But it’s unbelievable that this stuff is even available. This stuff is not harmless.”
While Utoft would ultimately like to see that items containing these harmful materials are removed entirely from production, he would like to start simple with a pillar in his own community: the Steele County Free Fair.
“We have a great fair, there is no other like it and that is a fact,” Utoft said, describing the fanatical atmosphere that surrounds the area’s biggest event of the year. “I want them to set the standard. If they say that vendors can’t sell this stuff, I guarantee that they will quit selling it because they don’t want to lose their spot.”
“Nothing gets done unless something is said,” he continued with passion. “If it has to start somewhere it should start here.”
Upon notification of the product, Fair Manager Scott Kozelka said that he has distributed the information to the entire Fair Board of Directors and has begun communication with other fairs in the area.
“We want to see if there’s anything that mandates these products,” Kozelka said, adding that the Proposition 65 warning was a new concept that he had never heard of. “We have to do our homework on a lot of things with this before we can jump to conclusions — and we don’t know which vendor it is so we can’t pinpoint it — but we are looking into it as we move forward with our licensing for 2020.”
Kozelka stated that most vendors who sell novelty items at the fair submit a 19-page list of the items they are choosing to sell, which makes it that much harder to figure out exactly where the slime in question came from. He asserted, however, that this is a matter that the staff and board members are taking seriously.
“We always appreciate things like this being brought to our attention,” Kozelka said. “If anything doesn’t seem right, we are always open to having concerns brought to us at the fair office.”
Utoft stated that he is not faulting the fair board or trying to go after them, but is hoping to start up a watchdog effort to bring more regulation to what is being sold at the fair, specifically because so much of it is being targeted to kids. Since discovering the warning label on the slime, Utoft said he couldn’t stop thinking about the nail polish, glitter, fake tattoos, and fun hair products that are also being sold at fairs around the country.
“I may not be able to change everything, but I should at least be able to make an effect at our fair,” Utoft said. “I’ll do it myself if I have to — give me a fair shirt and I will check every single product at every single stand if that’s what it takes. I just can’t believe this stuff is even available, it’s mind-boggling and it’s targeting our kids.”
In the meantime, Utoft urges parents and grandparents everywhere to be extra-observant about everything their families consume. He stated that while he always cared before, his own terminal cancer diagnosis changed everything.
“Be adamant about checking products,” Utoft said. “Five seconds is all it takes to look at the labels. There are a lot of bad products out there being sold.”
“It’s cancer in a bottle — that’s what this is,” Utoft fumed as gripped the container of his granddaughter’s slime. “It may as well be labeled ‘Kids Toxic Waste — Ready for Home Use!’”