A few weeks ago I stood in the cleaning aisle wondering what to get. Since I'm a die-hard label reader, I grabbed some containers and turned them around so I could assess the ingredients.
On one, there was no ingredient list - at all. On another, I could see what exactly 1.2% of the ingredients were. The other 98.8% were listed as "other ingredients." So much for informing the consumer.
Why so incomplete? Because currently the government only requires manufacturers to list a very few ingredients on product labels - mainly pesticides - which is, of course, only part of the environmental health story when it comes to the chemicals in your cleaning products.
So what's an eco-healthy shopper supposed to do when the label tells you so little? And no, "safe for your family and your pets when used as directed" doesn't qualify as useful information.
Ingredients just got a little easier to find
Not surprisingly, manufacturers of cleaning supplies are increasingly aware of us label readers. And business being business, they don't want to lose us - even if they have to show me a full ingredient list. Which is exactly what they plan to do - sorta.
Starting in January, 2010, industry groups began making more ingredient information available to consumers - but not in the aisle (where it counts). They're calling it the Consumer Product Ingredient Communication Initiative. It covers four product categories: air fresheners, automotive care, household cleaners, and floor polishes.
What it means to you
If you want a full ingredient list for a specific product, you can get it online or on the phone. An improvement to be sure. What you still can't do is make an informed decision while shopping (unless you've got a smart phone and are prepared to spend some time hunting info down while standing in the aisle).
Once you know what's inside, skip these 7 ingredients
While having an ingredient list somewhere is surely better than not having one at all, interpreting it is a different story. Which is why EWG Senior Scientist Rebecca Sutton put together this list of top ingredients of concern - so you can avoid them (good luck pronouncing them):
- 2-butoxyethanol (or ethylene glycol monobutyl ether) and other glycol ethers. 2-butoxyethanol is a widely-used cleaning solvent that: causes anemia by damaging red blood cells, creates air pollution that exceeds workplace limits, is linked to impaired fertility and reproductive and developmental toxicity, and (just to really make the case) EPA considers it a possible human carcinogen.
- Alkylphenol ethoxylates. These detergent-like chemicals break down into alkylphenols, potent hormone disruptors widely detected in people and the environment. The E.U. and Canada have banned them in cleaning supplies. The U.S. (surprise!) has not. Some common ones are: nonyl- and octylphenol ethoxylates, or non- and octoxynols.
- Dye. Companies often hide chemical information behind this word; when it's this unknown, it's safer to skip it altogether.
- Ethanolamines. These pH-stabilizers can cause otherwise healthy people to develop asthma. Some studies show that certain ethanolamines are carcinogenic or neurotoxic. Common ones to look out for are: mono-, di-, and tri-ethanolamine.
- Fragrance. These mystery mixtures can contain hundreds of untested chemicals, including toxic ingredients like phthalates and synthetic musks - both hormone disruptors. Fragrances are also among the top five allergens in the world.
- Pine or citrus oil. You may associate these smells with clean, but we recommend you don't use cleaning supplies that contain them on smoggy or high ozone days, when compounds in the oils can react with ozone in the air to form carcinogenic formaldehyde.
- Quaternary ammonium compounds (aka "quats"). These common antibacterial cleaning ingredients can cause otherwise healthy people to develop asthma. Overuse of quats may lead to development of bacteria resistant to these and other germ-killing chemicals. Look out for these: alkyl dimethyl benzyl ammonium chloride (ADBAC), benzalkonium chloride, and didecyl dimethyl benzyl ammonium chloride.
Beware incomplete information
Vague terms like "preservative" or "surfactant" don't really tell you what chemicals are in your cleaning supplies. This new "communication initiative" specifically allows fragrances, dyes, and preservatives to be identified by their functional names - in other words, the ingredient list will say just that: dyes, fragrances, and preservatives. Not thinking that qualifies as transparency - you?
What about the "greener" products, do they list ingredients?
We expect better labeling from safer products, and many deliver (and have for a while). A standout is Seventh Generation - they emphasize transparency and share full ingredient lists on their products (bless them) and their web site (complete with explanations for those of us who scratch their head when they see words like protease and oleic acid).
There oughta be a law...
US Representative Steve Israel (D-NY) and US Senator Al Franken (D-MN) are working on that. Last year they introduced bills in Congress that EWG supports - both called the Household Product Labeling Act - to require makers of household cleaners and other products to disclose their ingredients on the labels - a big step further than this voluntary industry campaign.
Rep. Israel describes it well in this short video.
[Thanks to Flickr CC & Manny Wallace for the wall of cleaners]