Are Your 'Green' Cleaning Products Safe?

By Meredith Reis
|  Tuesday, Mar 17, 2009  |  Updated 1:45 AM PDT
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Are Your 'Green' Cleaning Products Safe?

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Environmental groups are pushing for full disclosure so people who are interested in learning about the potential health and environmental impact of certain ingredients can understand what's in each product.

Like many consumers, Lindsay Allen places a priority on using green products to clean her home, where she lives with her husband and two small children. Her desire to use environmentally-friendly products grew out of an incident that happened when she was a young girl: her father was injured on a job where he was exposed to toxins.

"It really led to just kind of a heightened sensitivity in me, in creating a toxic free environment for my family, " says Allen.

For others, the choice to use green cleaners comes from a desire to do what they feel is best for the environment.

And the business of green is booming. According to SPINS, a market research and consulting firm for the Natural Products Industry, consumers purchased $290 million dollars worth of natural household cleaners and supplies in 2008. But separating truly non-toxic products from those simply claiming to be green can be tricky for some shoppers. First of all, green is a marketing term. There is no scientific definition of what that would mean when it comes to household products.

This could change in the future. The Federal Trade Commission is in the process of reviewing and revising their Guides for the Use of Environmental Marketing Claims, also known as the "Green Guides."

For now, the FTC's Consumer Resource for Sorting Out Green Claims states that: "claims that a product or service is 'environmentally friendly,' 'environmentally safe,' 'environmentally preferable,' or 'eco-safe' .... are unhelpful for two reasons: First, all products, packaging and services have some environmental impact, although some may have less than others. Second, these phrases alone do not provide the specific information you need to compare products, packaging, or services on their environmental merits."

So, how can one best determine which products are the least toxic? It's a question that's complicated by the simple fact that companies are not required by law to disclose to consumers every single ingredient contained in their products. Some cleaners feature partial ingredient lists on the package, others list no ingredients at all; while others make information available only through their Web site or a toll free number.

Environmental groups like Women's Voices for the Earth, are pushing for full disclosure so people who are interested in learning about the potential health and environmental impact of certain ingredients can understand what's in each product.

"There are about 9,000 chemicals on the market today that have not been fully tested for safety," said Urvashi Rangan, senior scientist at Consumer Union.  "That's not to say they're all dangerous. It all depends on how much you're exposed to and for how long. But a better rule of thumb to go by is just using less to get these jobs done."

The industry insists all their products are safe when used correctly, even those that contain stronger ingredients and have "warning" or "caution" labels. Although, it is recommended that some people, like those with asthma and certain allergies, avoid these stronger products.

"The most important information on a cleaning product label is the safety and usage information," said Brian Sansoni, vice president of communication and membership for the Soap and Detergent Association.  "Cleaning products are safe when used as directed. There is a huge amount of research and development and testing that goes into cleaning products before they ever hit the store shelves. The fact is, millions of people use cleaning products safely in their homes every single day."

Finding the safest products
For those who want greener products, Rangan says you want to look for the least number of ingredients. "It's helpful if you can recognize what some of those ingredients are, and I mean beyond 'plant-based materials.' What are those plant-based materials? And if there are some questions in your mind and you have some cleaners at home, do some internet searching. The NIH does have a database of all the chemicals that are out there and you can look up and see what the actual health effects might be."

Rangan also recommends looking for products with the Green Seal logo. "It's not on a lot of products, but it's a solid, independent, verification program with really good standards behind it."

Still, the WVE and other environmental groups have pressed the industry to disclose more. Recently, the Soap and Detergent and Association along with the Consumer Specialty Products Association agreed to new, voluntary guidelines that will give consumers more ingredient information. Those take effect in January 2010, but due to proprietary concerns some ingredients will still not be included and can be folded under such categories as "fragrance" or "preservatives."

Anja Rudiger, board member for Women's Voices For The Earth, says her organization is not satisfied. "What WVE is working towards and what all the women that we work with are calling for is national regulation is a legally required action to disclose all the ingredients in cleaning products and that includes every manufacturer, whether they now declare themselves as green or not."

Sansoni responds: "There can be a hundred or more components that go into the makeup of just one fragrance. Can you imagine trying to list all that information on a product label? Our voluntary guidelines are consistent with what's already out there governing cosmetics, and yet we're still providing more information than any law that's already on the books, in the United States. "

On Thursday, at least one company took steps to meet these calls. SC Johsonson, maker of such products as Windex, Shout, Pledgeand Glad, announced they will list disclose all of the ingredients in their products. The company's Web site states that this will include: dyes, preservatives and fragrance ingredients. "Fragrances will be shared by listing all ingredients that could potentially be included in the fragrance. This approach helps protect the proprietary details of the specific formulation of individual fragrances, which are a trade secret and competitive advantage for SC Johnson and its supply chain."

The information will be made available via labels, a dedicated Web site and the company's toll-free phone number. The rollout of this information will be complete by January 2012.

In an effort to force ingredient disclosure by other cleaning product manufacturers, the environmental group Earth Justice has cited a long-forgotten, 1974 New York state regulation requiring companies to file complete ingredient lists (and any related scientific research) with the state's Department of Environmental Conservation.

Earth Justice put manufacturers on notice and a handful complied, including the makers of Simple Green and Seventh Generation. Last month, the group filed a lawsuit against four major cleaning manufacturers who did not file these disclosures with the state: Procter & Gamble, Colgate-Palmolive, Church and Dwight and Reckitt-Benckiser.

The Soap and Detergent Association responds that the lawsuit is "unfounded, lacks legal standing and its claims are not supported by state law. Further, the challenge ignores efforts by industry to offer more information than ever before about cleaning products and their ingredients"

Making cleaning products at home
Some people who want to be absolutely sure about the ingredients in their cleaning products are choosing tp make their own. In fact, the WVE has sponsored "Green Cleaning Parties" across the country, hosting about 4,000 people since they started in March 2008.

Consumer Union also tested several recipes featuring basic ingredients (like baking soda and vinegar.)

"When it comes to this product area, and knowing what you're using, and knowing how hard that is to do out there because of lack of disclosure, using ingredients that are in your kitchen pantry can actually be a really effective way of dealing with a lot of cleaning chores you have around the house," Rangan said. "While they may not have the 'oomph' of all the industrial strength cleaners out there, when you clean more regularly, they can, in fact-- be effective enough to keep your house clean."

The one caveat is you should always use a fresh batch. Homemade products don't always keep well like traditional cleaners.

For Joyce Silberberger, the choice to use homemade cleaners made sense. "It makes a difference, it's cheaper and I feel like I'm doing my part to save, save the earth for my grandchildren and their children."

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