Hoping to get to a greener clean? That’s easier said than done in a world full of green-looking bottles filled with mysterious ingredients. Of the roughly 3000 chemical compounds that appear in household cleaning products, only about 7% have been fully tested and close to half of the rest have virtually no data on the specific risks accompanying them. What’s worse is the fact that cleaning product manufacturers are not required by law to list their ingredients, so you don’t even know which untested ingredients they contain. That part of the story is finally changing, not because of new government regulations (don’t hold your breath for those), but because more and more businesses are catching onto the idea that consumers really want to know what they are buying and are therefore scrambling to become more transparent.
One clear example is SC Johnson, makers of Windex®, Pledge®, Saran™, Glade®, Drano®, fantastik®, Raid® and numerous other household names. The company recently launched a new What’s Inside page on their website that allows consumers to look into any of their products and learn about their ingredients.
For example, fantastic® Orange Action cleaner, contains water, Alkyl Polyglycoside and Ethoxylated Alcohol (cleaning agents), Tetrasodium EDTA (chelator), Fragrance (info not available yet), Sodium Hydroxide (pH adjuster), and Liquitint® Brilliant Orange Dye.
Unless you’re a chemist, you’re not going to know much about these chemicals. Most ingredients are hyperlinked, but they only take you a page that give a very simple explanation of what the chemical does, nothing about it’s environmental, health, or safety impact.
For example, if you click on Ethoxylated Alcohol, it takes you to a page that tells you that it’s a cleaning agent that removes dirt and deposits. It would be nice if they had an additional link that took you to the Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS) or equivalent document.
There you might learn that it causes skin and eye irritation and that ingestion may cause gastrointestinal irritation, nausea, vomiting and diarrhea. You would also find that a face shield and/or chemical splash goggles or safety glasses with side shields are recommended when working with this chemical, as are full protective clothing, chemical boots, and chemical gloves and a NIOSH-approved organic vapor air-purifying respirator, self-contained breathing apparatus, or air-supplied respirators where there may be potential for overexposure. You will also learn that this chemical is known to be a human carcinogen and a reproductive hazard and that it is toxic to aquatic life.
Now, I didn’t mean to single out this particular chemical. In fact, I actually picked it out at random. But I think this only underscores the concern that people have about these chemicals, even though the amounts used in any given product might be very small.
According to Worldwatch Institute:
- Cleaning products were responsible for nearly 10 percent of all toxic exposures reported to U.S. Poison Control Centers in 2000, accounting for 206,636 calls. Of these, nearly two-thirds involved children under six.
- According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the air inside the typical home is on average 2-5 times more polluted than the air just outside—and as much as 100 times more contaminated—largely because of household cleaners and pesticides.
- The Janitorial Products Pollution Prevention Project reports that 6 out of every 100 janitors in Washington State lost time from their jobs as a result of injuries linked to toxic cleaning products.
- In a 2002 U.S. Geological Survey study of contaminants in U.S. stream water, 69 percent of streams sampled contained persistent detergent metabolites, and 66 percent contained disinfectants.
I think SC Johnson is to be commended in taking this step. I’m sure they understood the risks of doing so. It will allow consumers to make more informed choices, which may very well improve brand loyalty. At the same time, they might lose some customers. They could also end up changing their ingredients over time in response to consumers voting with their dollars.
As much as we bemoan the stagnation in Washington on global warming and other key issues involving our health and the planet’s health, it’s easy to forget how much power we still actually have as consumers even as companies continue to dictate their agendas to Congress. This voluntary movement towards increased transparency and responsibility gives a glint of hope at a time when it is sorely needed.
RP Siegel is co-author of the eco-thriller Vapor Trails.
Like airplanes, we all leave behind a vapor trail. And though we can easily see others’, we rarely see our own.
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