[Pharmwaste] Fight Grows Over Labels on Household Cleaners
Deborah.DeBiasi at deq.virginia.gov
Thu Sep 17 10:49:06 EDT 2009
September 17, 2009
Fight Grows Over Labels on Household Cleaners
By LESLIE WAYNE
Procter & Gamble, the maker of Mr. Clean, is under pressure to come
Manufacturers of detergents, household cleansers and furniture polish,
like Procter & Gamble, Colgate-Palmolive and others, are facing
questions from consumers about the chemicals in their products. While
many of the chemicals are present only in small amounts, some have been
associated with asthma, birth defects and fertility problems in higher
doses. And even if the amounts are low, consumer groups say, what is the
effect of using these products over a lifetime?
The questions have left the industry in an awkward position. It wants to
be seen as environmentally sensitive and consumer-friendly. But at the
same time, companies do not want to give competitors and makers of cheap
knock-offs all the details of what goes into Pine-Sol, for instance, or
So they have been working with consumer groups to devise a plan that
could satisfy both sides. Come January, the industry has said it will
voluntarily start to disclose much of what is in its cleaning products,
which now represent a $14 billion-a-year business. Consumers will be
able to call an 800 number, look at a Web site or, in some cases, simply
check the product label to find the ingredients.
The industry's plan has been praised by consumer groups as a step in the
right direction. "The voluntary plan is not perfect, but it is worlds
ahead of where the industry was before," said Alexandra Scranton,
director of science and research at Women's Voices for the Earth, a
nonprofit group that published a study in 2007, "Household Hazards,"
that catalogued potential health risks. "We had been talking about this
issue for years, and now it is being fast-tracked."
But whether it goes far enough for some critics is another question.
Procter & Gamble, Colgate-Palmolive and other major companies have been
sued in New York State by consumer groups seeking fuller disclosure. A
measure has been introduced in Congress to require ingredient disclosure
on all product labels. And in California, which has led the nation in
passing "green chemistry" laws, an influential Democrat, State Senator
Joe Simitian, said he would press for mandatory disclosure if the
voluntary effort came up short.
The government now requires only that ingredients posing an immediate
danger be reported on product labels.
Representative Steve Israel, Democrat of New York, argues that consumers
have a right to know what is in the products in the kitchen and bathroom
cabinets. He introduced the mandatory labeling bill.
"The cleaning industry uses five billion pounds of chemicals in the
United States, and we have little to no idea of what chemicals are
inside these products," he said. "It's nonsensical that we have labels
on food, but not on the cleansers on kitchen counters."
Mr. Israel's measure has been criticized by the Consumer Specialty
Products Association, a lobbying group for the industry that has been
working with consumer advocacy groups to devise a plan that both can
live with. So far, the association has been able to get entities as
diverse as the Sierra Club and Procter & Gamble to support the voluntary
"We've been working on this issue for years," said Phil Klein, senior
vice president for the industry association. "We're trying to find a
balance to protect confidentiality and product formulations with the
need to be more transparent as to what's in these products."
There are still points of contention. The voluntary industry plan covers
four product categories - air fresheners, automotive care, household
cleaners and floor polishes. It would require that all ingredients be
listed in descending order of concentration, but amounts of less than 1
percent would not have to be ranked. Preservatives, fragrances and dyes
- crucial ingredients that differentiate products but can contain
potentially hazardous chemicals - are exempt from disclosure plan.
Big fights are breaking out over small amounts of chemicals, since that
is what the industry says is the "secret sauce" that makes products
special - putting the lemony smell into Lemon Pledge, for instance.
"Chemicals that make up 30 percent of a product are not the secret,"
said Tom Neltner, co-chairman of the Sierra Club's Toxic Committee. "But
chemicals that represent only one-half or a quarter percent - anything
below 1 percent is where the information becomes really confidential and
proprietary." That, he continued, is "the nub of negotiations right now.
We care because if 99.5 percent of a product is water, and the last part
is a fragrance that really hurts someone with asthma, we want to know."
The specialty association supports the idea of multiple disclosure
options, including the Web. Consumer groups want information on product
labels, and some big manufacturers, Colgate-Palmolive for instance, have
said they intend to do just that. Even so, some in the industry say that
too many ingredients can lead to an overly cluttered label and obscure
important hazard warnings.
"What good is posting something on a Web site when you are on your knees
ingesting floor wax?" asked Representative Israel. "This is going to be
a very tough fight. Voluntary compliance is an oxymoron. It may be good
public relations, but not good policy."
Meanwhile, some companies are leaping ahead of the industry - and
S. C. Johnson, the maker of Windex, Shout stain remover and Glade air
fresheners, has announced that it will list all ingredients on its
product labels, as well as on its Web site and through an 800 number. S.
C. Johnson readily admits that the move, in addition to winning plaudits
from consumer groups, makes good business sense.
"Making information about the ingredients in our products readily
accessible and easy to understand helps our consumers know they can
continue to trust our products," the company's chief executive, H. Fisk
Johnson, said when the program was announced last March.
The Clorox Company, which makes Pine-Sol, Tilex and Clorox, has started
an all-natural line of products, marketed under the Green Works name,
with all ingredients listed on the label and the products' Web site.
Ingredients of other Clorox products are also on its Web site.
"Increased transparency makes consumers more confident in choosing a
Clorox product," said Dan Staublin, a company spokesman.
More than good business, such moves can keep lawsuits at bay.
Earthjustice, a national nonprofit law firm, filed suit in New York
State earlier this year against Procter & Gamble, Colgate-Palmolive and
two smaller companies. The suit, filed on behalf of a number of consumer
advocacy groups, is seeking enforcement of a little-noticed law enacted
in 1976 requiring makers of household cleaners sold in New York to file
reports listing all ingredients.
No reports have ever been filed, and the companies say none need be.
The plaintiffs "have not alleged that their members have suffered any
actual physical injury as a result of using any of respondents'
household cleaning products, nor have they alleged any nonspeculative,
actual injury to the environment or to the public health caused by any
of respondents' products," the companies said in their legal response.
Yet while Procter & Gamble, the industry leader, battles consumer groups
in court, it endorses the voluntary effort.
"We want to ensure that consumers have the full education to understand
what ingredients we use and why," Ross Holthouse, a company spokesman,
Deborah L. DeBiasi
Email: Deborah.DeBiasi at deq.virginia.gov (NEW!)
WEB site address: www.deq.virginia.gov
Virginia Department of Environmental Quality
Office of Water Permit Programs
Industrial Pretreatment/Toxics Management Program
PPCPs, EDCs, and Microconstituents
Mail: P.O. Box 1105, Richmond, VA 23218 (NEW!)
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