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Environmentalists to sue for disclosure of chemicals in cleaning products

February 17, 2009 |  3:38 pm

The makers of Tide, Ajax and other common household cleansers are being asked to come clean about their ingredients. Environmental and health activists announced plans for a lawsuit to make Procter & Gamble, Colgate-Palmolive and two other major firms reveal the chemical ingredients of their cleaning products and their research on their effects.

“People deserve to know whether the products they use to wash their dishes and clean their homes could be harmful,” said Keri Powell, attorney for Earthjustice, in New York. The nonprofit public-interest law firm, which specializes in pro-environment litigation, will file the lawsuit Wednesday in New York on behalf of six state and national environmental and health groups, including the Sierra Club and the American Lung Assn.

Last September, the coalition of groups sent letters to several manufacturers informing them of the little-known law and its requirement that they file semiannual ingredient and research reports with New York state’s Department of Environmental Conservation. Method and Seventh Generation were among the manufacturers that complied. Procter & Gamble, Colgate-Palmolive and Church and Dwight (makers of Arm & Hammer products) all refused; Reckitt-Benckiser (which makes Woolite) did not respond.

The lawsuit invokes Article 35 of New York’s Environmental Conservation Law, a law that’s seen little action since it was passed in 1976 to combat phosphates, a family of chemicals that had been widely used in detergents until they were linked with negative human and environmental health impacts. Health issues are central to the new lawsuit as well. Many of the plaintiff groups in the new lawsuit link the chemicals in household cleaning products with asthma, skin sensitization and other human health issues, as well as reproductive problems in aquatic life.

Responding to the lawsuit in a press release issued today, the Soap and Detergent Assn. expressed "disappointment that activist groups led by Earthjustice are using an arcane New York State regulation as a way to disparage cleaning product formulators whose products are used safely and effectively by millions of people every day.” The Washington, D.C.-based trade group represents 110 cleaning product manufacturers, which together produce more than 90% of the cleaning products manufactured in the United States.

In addition to its full-disclosure requirements, the law upon which the new suit is predicated gives the Department of Environmental Conservation the authority to label products with their ingredients and ban the use of certain chemicals if the agency finds them harmful.

“The disclosure requirements this law sets out go beyond what [manufacturers] are currently required to do under any other law,” said Powell. “We’re hoping the federal government will eventually become much more aggressive about this.”

The Consumer Product Safety Commission is the federal agency charged with overseeing home cleaning products, but it doesn't require cleaning product manufacturers to provide comprehensive ingredient lists, so few companies do. And while the federal Toxic Substances Control Act was approved in 1976 to regulate the introduction of chemicals, it grandfathered in most of the existing chemicals on the market.

In California, two laws were passed in 2008 as part of the state’s “green chemistry initiative.” Together they require the state to identify “chemicals of concern," to evaluate safer alternatives and to create a scientific clearinghouse for information on chemicals' effects, but it will be years before consumers see the fruits of that legislation.

That leaves today’s consumers with little information upon which to base their cleaning product decisions except what is provided by the manufacturers.

“The cleaning product industry is committed to providing more information than ever before on cleaning product ingredients,” said Michelle Radecki, general counsel for the Soap and Detergent Assn. Radecki pointed to her group’s new Consumer Product Ingredient Communication Initiative. The voluntary program, which is scheduled to roll out in January 2010, is designed to provide more extensive ingredient information to consumers.

-- Susan Carpenter

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