Have you ever considered how odd it is that there are warning labels on cleaning products? I mean, think about that: they’re supposed to be ridding your home of bad stuff, not adding to it-much less potentially making you sick!
And here’s something even stranger: The labels on cleaning products don’t even tell you about most of the really nasty stuff that’s inside them. If these products are as safe as they’re claimed to be, why don’t the companies tell us what’s in them? Call me suspicious, but I honestly don’t think it’s because the recipe is top secret. If it was, there wouldn’t be so many competing products with identical ingredients.
Don’t look to the government for help on this one. They only require companies to list “chemicals of known concern” on their labels. The key word here is “known.” The fact is that the government has no idea whether most of the chemicals used in everyday cleaning products are safe because it doesn’t test them, and it doesn’t require manufacturers to test them either. Actually, under the terms of the Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976, the U. S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which administers the act, can’t require chemical companies to prove the safety of their products unless the agency itself can show the product poses a health risk-which the EPA does not have the resources to do since, according to one estimate, it receives some two thousand new applications for approval every year. How tough is their review? You, decide: In 2003, according to the Environmental Working Group, an agency watchdog, the EPA approved most applications in three weeks, even though more than half had provided no information on toxicity at all.
For the most part, the EPA simply relies on voluntary testing agreements with major manufacturers. Last time I checked the dictionary, “voluntary” meant “if you feel like it.”
Over at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), drug companies follow a more rigorous and respected process of testing before a medicine is approved for public use. But most of the things you buy in a drugstore aren’t drugs, and there is no such process for testing and approving the vast array of chemicals used in literally thousands of other everyday products and cleaners.
There’s seldom any way for you to know either what kinds of chemicals are in tub cleaner, detergent, shampoo, makeup, or anything else, or whether any of the ingredients are toxic. About the only information we’re commonly given is what the warning label on the product as a whole says-assuming it has one. Oh sure, if there’s a skull and crossbones and the word “poison” plastered on the container, we know it’s really dangerous stuff. But there are other levels of danger. The EPA assigns toxicity levels to products like cleaners and pesticides based upon ÿhow much harm they’re likely to cause if you swallow, inhale, or absorb them through your skin. How they measure this is pretty technical.
Sloan Barnett is a regular contributor to NBC’s Today Show and the Green Editor for KNTV, the NBC affiliate in San Francisco. She has been a television and print journalist for more than 10 years, and wrote a popular consumer advice column for New York’s Daily News for nearly a decade. She lives in San Francisco with her husband and three children. FMI, please visit: http://www.greengoeswitheverything.com