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That “Green” Cleaning Product Could Still Damage Your Health

by Shelby Kinney-Lang

March 18, 2015
Image by Mysid via Wikimedia Commons

While “greenwashing”—marketing products as good for the environment when they are not—is nothing new, according to a paper released earlier this month, allegedly ecofriendly cleaning products may also not be very good for your health. One possible problem? The fragrances often associated with pristine countertops and lemony kitchen floors that are included in many cleaning solutions.

The paper, written by Dr. Anne Steinemann, a scientist at the University of Melbourne, analyzed the contents of 37 unnamed but common household products. These include laundry detergents, fabric softeners, dryer sheets, soaps, hand sanitizers, lotions, deodorants, shampoo, baby shampoo, and air fresheners in spray, gel, solid, oil, and disk form. Of those, Steinemann studied 17 that made “green” claims. Altogether, the group emitted 156 separate volatile organic compounds (VOC), 42 of which were classified as toxic or hazardous under U.S. federal laws. VOCs are chemicals emitted as gases that can harm health and negatively impact the environment. Each product emitted at least one of the hazardous VOCs, including all of those with green claims.

“Fewer than six percent of all ingredients I found were listed on any product label or the material safety data sheet (MSDS),” says Steinemann. “Basically, that’s the issue.” 

Companies are currently not required by law to list all the ingredients present in a household product. In theory, the FTC has rules that govern various claims made by marketers about their products, but the regulations are vague enough to allow Walmart to slap a “green” label on products it doesn’t even consider green. Part of the problem is defining what constitutes green or other related claims like “all natural,” or even “non-toxic,” ostensibly meant to target conscious consumers. This can be especially dubious to shoppers who might pay extra money for products labeled this way, thinking they’re buying something that’s better for the environment or their health.

Fragrance is the big, untold story here. Companies are exempt from revealing what chemicals compose their fragrance. Ingredient disclosure has long been an issue for major companies in the business of selling cleaning products: “Fragrance” is often made up of several dozen to several hundred chemicals, most of them synthetic. And their use is almost entirely unregulated. Among the most common chemicals the paper found in fragrances were terpenes, which were not present in fragrance-free products. Terpenes themselves are not toxic, but when they interact with ground-level ozone, which can come from smog or indoor sources like copy machines, they form formaldehyde and fine particulate matter. Formaldehyde is an irritant and human carcinogen that can be dangerous and possibly cause cancer at high levels or after prolonged exposure.

Photo by Judith Doyle via Flickr

For most adults, occasional contact with trace amounts of toxic or potentially hazardous chemicals is well within recommended safety guidelines and will not cause a noticeable reaction. But workers whose jobs cause them to come in contact with these chemicals every day are at risk for developing chronic health problems, such as reproductive disorders, respiratory problems, and cancer. And many Americans claim fragrance sensitivity, which Steinemann says is almost like an epidemic. They suffer from headaches, migraines, asthma, or other types of allergic reactions when they come in contact with certain scented or perfumed products. This is one of the paper’s big takeaways: whenever a product is fragranced, it emits chemicals that are potentially hazardous to human health.        

All the secrecy around what types of chemicals make up fragrance in products has spurred a grassroots push for more transparency—with some recent successes. Perhaps responding to pressure from advocacy groups, companies like SC Johnson, Clorox, and Reckitt Benckiser are planning to partially list the chemicals in their fragrance repertoire beginning this year.

These types of steps are especially important for individual consumers who go out of their way to purchase ecofriendly or healthy options, but they might also affect major purchasers, as well. The EPA runs an Environmentally Preferable Purchasing (EPP) program, which helps agencies across the federal government comply with green purchasing laws and stimulate the market in the green economy.

Image by Nevit Dilmen via Wikimedia Commons

The EPA also unveiled a new overhaul to its Safer Choice certification earlier this month, with an update to its “Design for Environment” labels that are supposed to indicate a product that’s safe for the planet as well as human and animal health. A big innovation with the Safer Choice program is a certified fragrance-free label, although fragrances are still allowed in other Safer Choice certified products under current criteria. The website says a newer version of rules and criteria for fragrances will be released in the future, after the EPA gathers more reliable data.

The data in Steinemann’s article is clear, however: all fragranced products that were tested emitted potentially hazardous chemicals, regardless if they were packaged as green, organic, natural, non toxic, or other eco-friendly marketing. As science tries to figure out what it is about these chemicals that can potentially cause adverse health effects, it’s important in the meantime for consumers to know what’s actually in the products they’re using. This will require new laws mandating a higher level of transparency and more stringent labeling standards, so shoppers can make better choices for themselves and the environment.

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That “Green” Cleaning Product Could Still Damage Your Health