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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Coming Clean About Household Cleaners

Air Date: Week of

Living on Earth's Hona Liles checking out some cleaners in the LOE kitchen.

Cleaning companies are notoriously secretive about the chemical contents of their products. But now, New York is reviving a 1976 law that requires manufacturers to disclose chemical ingredients in household cleaners. Urvashi Rangan, an environmental health scientist and Director of Technical Policy at Consumer’s Union, discusses the disclosure with host Bruce Gellerman.


GELLERMAN: It’s Living on Earth, I’m Bruce Gellerman. Do you have any idea what’s in the cleaning products underneath your kitchen sink? We didn’t. So we asked L-O-E’s Honah Liles to take a look under ours.


LILES: Let’s see, we have Uni San Kitchen heavy duty all surface cleaner. The label on the can says, ‘non-flammable, no phosphates, harmless to the environment’…And there is a list of contents: sodium bicarbonate, nonylphenol ethoxylate, triethanolamine…


LILES: Let’s see, what else? Sun Sations with OXYgen cleaning action…‘Caution: keep out of reach of children, avoid irritating fumes, do not mix with chlorine bleach.’ But I don’t see the ingredients anywhere.


Living on Earth's Hona Liles checking out some cleaners in the LOE kitchen.

GELLERMAN: These days, finding out the chemicals in household cleaners is hit or miss. But 35 years ago, the New York legislature decided it was time for manufacturers of cleaning products to come clean and reveal their ingredients. The law was never enforced though – that is, until now. The New York Department of Environmental Conservation is dusting off that long forgotten law and holding hearings on how to implement it. Urvashi Rangan is an environmental scientist and Director of Technical Policy for Consumer’s Union. Thanks for joining us.

RANGAN: Oh you’re so welcome; it’s a pleasure to be here.

GELLERMAN: So how is it that a 35 year-old law requiring disclosure of chemicals in products has never been enforced?

RANGAN: Yeah, it’s not really clear how it was never enforced. A group called Earth Justice, which is an environmental law firm actually came upon the statute and filed suit against four large cleaning manufacturers, to force them to disclose the ingredients on their formulations. They did not win that lawsuit, but they began efforts to encourage the Department of Environmental Conservation in New York to enforce the law in and of themselves.

GELLERMAN: So what are the benefits of disclosure? I mean, why disclose?

RANGAN: Most consumers think what they pull off the supermarket shelves is safe, or has been demonstrated as being safe. 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. Beyond that, consumers want to be able to purchase the safest products on the market. And, without full ingredient disclosure, they simply can’t make informed or comparative choices.

GELLERMAN: What about federal laws? Aren’t there federal laws requiring disclosure of chemicals in compounds?

RANGAN: There are some federal laws regarding incredibly hazardous materials used in cleaning products. If you have a hazardous material, or the product itself is hazardous, you have to use certain types of labels. If you have an antibacterial cleaner, or a disinfectant, it’s actually a pesticidal product, and the active ingredients in these pesticidal products, have to be disclosed.

GELLERMAN: I know a lot of companies are now moving to voluntary disclosure, and they’re doing it online…

RANGAN: There are a number of progressive companies who are really going above and beyond what’s required of them today to provide ingredient disclosure. They can even do a better job too, when we look at things like plant-derived surfactant as an ingredient. Tell us what surfactant it is.

GELLERMAN: Well, I’m going to go to a website. It’s ‘what’s inside SC Johnson dot com.’


GELLERMAN: I’m looking at their Fantastik with pure orange oil. Let’s see it’s got a chelator, it’s tetrasodium EDTA. Fragrance information will be added soon. And, dye… it’s a brilliant orange dye, it’s called…but that’s it!

RANGAN: Yeah, and we’d like to know what’s inside the ‘brilliant orange dye’ and we’d like to know what’s inside the fragrance. 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.

GELLERMAN: Yeah, if I press on the tetrasodium EDTA, all it says is a chelator that removes soils. Doesn’t help me much.

RANGAN: No, and one of the parts of this law in New York that’s very interesting is that these ingredients should be disclosed along with their health or environmental hazard information. And, that’s something that consumers are also looking for in terms of being able to make the best-informed choices.

GELLERMAN: More and more products are making a virtue out of using the quote, unquote, natural ingredients. I’m trying to find out what “natural” means, and, according to federal law, it’s kind of meaningless.

RANGAN: Yeah, unfortunately, the natural label is almost one of the top green-washing terms for us. There are very few standards behind what that term means. It only necessarily might mean that something came from a natural source. But, you can extract something from a plant and you can also chemically react that into an ingredient. And so, that term is very loosey goosey, and consumers shouldn’t rely on that term without doing some additional homework. Non-toxic is another one of those labels that just has no standards behind it and no verification what so ever.

And, in fact, in a report we did on cleaners and reported that non-toxic had no standardized meaning, we heard back from a company who sent us a lot of documentation to support their use of non-toxic. In review of that documentation, we actually came upon a carcinogen that’s used in the product, and so, it’s just sort of highlights how companies can use that term really any which way they want to, even if they have a little bit of carcinogen in their product to.

GELLERMAN: Urvashi, are you one of those consumers who I see standing in the market isle reading the fine print?

RANGAN: Well, for my job here at Consumer Reports, I am that consumer standing in the store reading the labels trying to make sense of them, yes.

GELLERMAN: What about when you go shopping? Do you know what to buy?

RANGAN: Not all the time! And I see new labels all the time on the market and I always have to ask myself- what do they mean, is somebody behind them? Is there a set of standards behind it? And, when it comes to cleaning products, when I see labels, I can’t often find ingredient decks that are specific enough for me to be able to make a proper judgment, and that’s the kind of thing that we’d like to see get better, for, not only the consumers but to level the playing field in the marketplace.

GELLERMAN: Urvashi Rangan is an environmental health scientist, Director of Technical Policy for Consumer’s Union, and the project director of Consumer Reports’ greenerchoices dot org. Urvashi Rangan, thank you very much.

RANGAN: You’re so welcome!



Recommendations for disclosure outlined at the stakeholders meeting

What's inside SC Johnson?

Article on the outcome of the stakeholders meeting


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