Are your cleaning products safe?

Living on Earth

This story was originally covered by PRI’s Living on Earth. For more, listen to the audio above.

Some 35 years ago, the New York Legislature passed a law that required cleaning product companies to disclose the ingredients in their products. That law was never enforced. Now, it’s very difficult for consumers to know what potentially harmful ingredients are lurking under their sinks.

“Most consumers think what they pull off the supermarket shelves is safe, or has been demonstrated as being safe,” Urvashi Rangan, an environmental scientist and Director of Technical Policy for Consumers Union, told Living on Earth. “They would be surprised to learn that a number of the ingredients that are used in cleaning products today may not be as safe as they think.”

Consumers need full disclosure of the ingredients, according to Rangan, so they can make better informed choices about which products to buy. Federal statutes protect people against seriously hazardous materials, but Rangan says the laws don’t go far enough.

In fact, the un-enforced New York law says ingredients have to be disclosed along with their health or environmental hazard information, Rangan points out. That’s definitely not going on right now.

The labels that do exist often don’t contain enough information, or could be outright misleading. For example, the label “natural” is “very loosey goosey,” according to Rangan, “and consumers shouldn’t rely on that term without doing some additional homework.” She says, “the natural label is almost one of the top green-washing terms for us. There are very few standards behind what that term means.”

The term “non-toxic” also has “no standards behind it and no verification what so ever,” according to Rangan. The Consumers Union inspected documentation on one cleaning product that was labeled “non-toxic” and found a carcinogen in it.

Some companies have been moving toward more voluntary disclosure, and putting information about their products online. Rangan says, “there are a number of progressive companies who are really going above and beyond what’s required of them today to provide ingredient disclosure.” But even those companies haven’t gone far enough, according to Rangan. She says:

These companies know that people want this information, and the steps they’ve taken are very positive, but they haven’t gone quite far enough. And, this is ultimately where we would like to see full disclosure of these ingredients.

Hosted by Steve Curwood, “Living on Earth” is an award-winning environmental news program that delves into the leading issues affecting the world we inhabit. More “Living on Earth.”

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