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The cleaning product industry can and must do better

Looking Beyond the Label in New Report on Toxic Chemicals in Cleaning Products

Cleaning should be good for our health and not add to the widespread public health burdens that impact our quality of life.”

Alex Scranton
Director of Science
and Research

Today we released our new report “Beyond the Label: Health Impacts for Harmful Ingredients in Cleaning Products“. In many ways, this report is the long-awaited follow-up to the report “Household Hazards” I wrote back in 2007 when we first launched our campaign for safer cleaning products. At the time of that report we quickly realized that getting full information on ingredients in cleaning products was close to impossible. It was mindboggling to accept the truth that simple information like basic ingredients for cleaning products we use everyday could be kept secret from the public.

Fast forward 14 years of hard advocacy and organizing work later and I now have most of the ingredient data I needed back then at my fingertips. So exciting! I couldn’t wait to dive in and see what these products are actually made of. But there is a wealth of new ingredient information out there – more than can possibly be encompassed in a single report. We chose to focus on what we felt was most important today – and which represented new information on these products that has only recently been revealed.

Toxic Burdens

And what is important today is to remember that cleaning product exposures is just one part of the everyday toxic burden we face that affects our health. That toxic burden is not equally shared, but is disproportionately shouldered in the U.S. by frontline workers, low-income communities and people of color. We recognized that you can’t just look at the health impacts of cleaning products alone, because no one experiences these impacts in isolation. But we believe that cleaning product manufacturers do look through that lens – designing their products and ensuring their safety as though we all live in an ideal world without multiple other stresses that impact our health. And this kind of thinking (assessing only the risks of ingredients in isolation from other factors) unfortunately leads to the inclusion of unnecessarily toxic chemicals in products. It begs the question of why one would choose to add additional hazards to overburdened populations when inherently safer alternatives exist.

The cleaning product industry can and must do better. They are well aware that women use more cleaning products than men, and that people of color and of low-income are much more likely to clean for a living. They should be designing their products with tremendous precaution, taking into account the toxic health burdens and vulnerabilities these populations already face.

We have highlighted in this report, examples of cleaning product ingredients – which have largely only recently been disclosed to the public. These are ingredients that may not be on the public’s radar. None of these ingredients are specifically essential to the performance or the efficacy of the products – they all have available safer alternatives.

Fragrance Exposed

Not surprisingly, five of them chemicals we highlight are components of fragrance, an ingredient category that has long been shrouded in secrecy by the fragrance industry. Not that long ago, even cleaning product manufacturers were severely restricted in what they were allowed to know about the ingredients in the fragrances they purchased to make their products scented. Safety assessments of fragrance ingredients were largely trusted to the companies that developed and sold them, with little to no transparency. As a result, fragrance ingredients like butylphenyl methylpropional (Lilial) have come to be widely used in cleaning products.

Butylphenyl methylpropional is a known reproductive toxicant (recently banned from products in the European Union) and a distinctly poor choice to be included in products disproportionately used by women (including of course many women of reproductive age). It does not make any sense, given the many hazards to a healthy pregnancy that already exist, and which are largely out of most people’s control, to intentionally add a chemical which poses yet another additional risk for something as arbitrary as how a cleaning product is scented. Fragrance development is a very creative process – there are simply better options that we can and should be using to make equally attractive scents.

This is just one example. Other chemicals highlighted in the report pose a variety of other unnecessary additional threats to our health and our environment – from increasing skin allergies, to birth defects to significant water contamination. With this report we hope to raise awareness of these toxic chemicals, for the sake of individuals looking to protect their health and who (finally) have much of the ingredient information they need to make informed product choices. We also hope to inspire cleaning product manufacturers to reevaluate how they design their products and make ingredient choices, to take into consideration the real lives and health concerns of their customers.

And there’s more to come. When we started our safe cleaning campaign nearly 15 years ago, we knew the hurdles would be big. From dangerous narratives that reinforce the idea that cleaning chemicals should be toxic to be effective, to secret ingredients that expose us to harm without our knowledge or our consent – there’s plenty that needs to be scrubbed clean in this industry. But with each step, each report and each victory we are making huge progress to ensure products that are on our shelves are free of toxic chemicals, and manufacturers make the health of people and environmental a priority.

But for now, join me in diving into the report and this new information! And please join us to learn more at our webinar on April 28th where I’ll help answer your questions on toxic chemicals in cleaning products. RSVP TODAY!

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