By Barbara Kessler
Green Right Now
Green cleaners exploded onto store shelves over the last five years, offering to detoxify our homes, laundry, dishes and countertops with a dazzling line-up of herb-y, botanically scented, natural and biodegradable formulas.
These products promised to replace the old guard of harsh, caustic and unhealthful less-than-green products, solving those perennial problems of tub rings, toilet bowl stains and kitchen sink germs but without killing aquatic life, risking anyone’s fertility or triggering asthma episodes.
While many of these heroic new cleaners made good, a surprising number are not nearly as consistently pure and natural as the marketing and labels would have you believe, according to new research by the Environmental Working Group.
The EWG’s 2012 Guide to Green Cleaning, released Monday, warns that many green cleaners contain harmful chemicals and fail to disclose specific ingredients on product labels.
"Quite a few cleaning products that line store shelves are packed with toxic chemicals that can wreak havoc with your health, including many that harm the lungs, said EWG senior scientist Rebecca Sutton, PhD, in an announcement about the guide.
“The good news is, there are plenty of cleaning products that will get the job done without exposing you to hazardous substances," she said.
More about that good news in a moment. First, the bad news. Several categories of cleaners tested by EWG scientists turned up multiple problems.
About 53 percent of household cleaners and products that claim to be non-toxic still contained ingredients that can harm the lungs, for instance; and about 22 percent of those chemicals reportedly cause asthma in previously healthy individuals, the EWG reported.
Many of the 2,000 cleaners tested included ingredients known to be toxic. Others were graded down for failing to reveal enough about the compounds they were using. That forced the EWG to give the product a lower grade for lack of disclosure and because it could contain questionable components, said Johanna Congleton, PhD, a senior scientist and toxicologist who evaluated the formulas.
“One of the things I was surprised to find was that some of the products that market themselves as green, you’ll see on the label “cleaning agent” (listed as an ingredient).: You can’t get anymore vague than ‘cleaning agent,’ Congleton said.
Such labeling could hide a toxic ingredient, and it’s a disservice to consumers either way, she said.
“So when you pick up a green product that says it’s non-toxic and you turn it over and the label says ‘cleaning agent’ and ‘anionic surfactant’, you don’t have enough information there to tell if its non-toxic,” she said.
But non-disclosure was only one issue. The 14-month investigation by EWG uncovered a long list of chemicals in so-called natural or green cleaners, from fragrance mixtures that can trigger allergies to anti-bacterial products that contribute to the creation of the “super bugs” that undermine antibiotic drugs needed to treat human diseases.
The guide helps consumers weed out the good and bad by listing all the known ingredients in each product tested, assigning grades to each ingredient and a final grade to the product, which is then categorized by cleaning purpose and by brand.
Some of the dangerous chemicals that turned up include:
- Formaldehyde, a known carcinogen that’s been used as a preservative and can form in products when certain citrus or pine oils interact with other scents. This interaction can be enhanced by ozone levels in the air, Congleton said, and its dangerous enough that the California Air Resources Board has warned consumers not to use such products on bad ozone days. Formaldehyde also achieved recent notoriety when it was found in Johnson’s & Johnson’s Baby Shampoo, the resulting outcry became one impetus for J&J’s decision to clean up all its products over the next three years. (And, a coalition of public health groups kept pushing the issue.)
- 1,4 dioxane. Like formaldehyde, this carcinogen can form inside a product without the customer being aware of it.
- Quaternary ammonium, often found in antibacterial spray cleaners, this ingredient can cause an asthma attack.
- Sodium borate or borax. Often added as a stabilizer, it also can be a hormone disruptor. In the European Union, Boric Acid requires special labeling that identifies it as potentially damaging to fertility and fetuses, Congleton said.
- Choroform, which is suspected of being carcinogenic, escapes as a gas from chlorine bleach.
- Fragrances, like those found in many home air fresheners and laundry dryer sheets. These can have harmful health consequences, causing respiratory irritation in humans. EWG gave a “D” to 161 products in the air freshener category, nearly 60 percent of the entire product group.
The lousy grades for air fresheners were among the worst for an entire category, involving dozens of brands.
Problems across brands and brand lines was a recurring theme of the EWG Guide, which found issues in the formulas of some products by even the biggest and most successful green cleaning brands.
Mrs. Meyer’s Clean Day Lemon Verbena Room Freshener, for instance, received a D grade, because one vague ingredient (identified as a solubizing agent) kills fish and causes allergies and skin irritation in users. The product also contains several ingredients of “some”or”moderate” concern.
Only 11 air fresheners received an A grade; and one of them was plain, old unadulterated baking soda.
All-purpose cleaners didn’t score much better with 87 percent receiving a D or F because they contain ingredients of concern.
Youch! That’s a lot of greenwashing.
Joining plain old baking soda on the honor roll was plain old vinegar, which received an “A” in the all-purpose category. So did a select group of products from Green Shield, Dr. Bronner’s, Aussan, Bon Ami and Whole Foods. The guide highlights these top products.
Some of the brands that received mixed reviews — great reviews for some products and terrible marks for others — included the Ecover and Seventh Generation lines, both major sellers in specialty markets and grocery store chains.
The Ecover cleaning line, for instance, received an “A” for its non-chlorine bleach power, and “B” grades for its laundry detergent; but several of its creations received “D’s”.
Similarly, Vermont-based Seventh Generation, received several “A’s” but also several “D’s”. One of the ingredients that brought down Seventh Gen’s average included Boric Acid, found in that brand’s liquid laundry detergents, but not in its powder laundry detergents (which earned an “A”).
Boric Acid, despite its non-toxic reputation and natural element status, can still has health consequences, Congleton said. The evidence that Boric Acid is an endocrine disruptor is strong, she said, because it’s based on animal studies.
A look at the Material Safety Data Sheet for boric acid confirms that it is classified as toxic to the reproductive system of females and possibly males.
Ecover and Seventh Generation representatives have not yet returned requests for comment.
Arm & Hammer products also were all over the map, with grades ranging from an “A” for A&H’s regular old baking soda to “F’s” for its laundry softener sheets and scented laundry detergents.
Baking soda and vinegar, popular “homemade” cleaning ingredients received good marks in the report, an apparent nod to the value of leaving well enough alone.
Oxi-Clean products also tripped up, but not because of their safe active ingredient, sodium carbonate peroxide. Questionable added ingredients, however, landed several Oxi-Clean products in hot (hazardous) water. When those ingredients were excised from the formula, for example in Oxi-Clean’s Baby Laundry Stain Soaker, the product won an “A”.
(Note to self: Buy things labeled for babies to improve odds of exposure to harmful ingredients.)
Only a few brands earned top marks across their slate of offerings. Dr. Bronner’s, with its short list of pure ingredients, scored straight A’s for its three castile- and hemp-based all-purpose cleaners.
Whole Foods’ Green Mission products also came out looking squeaky clean with As and Bs.
But the overall up-and-down report card received by the majority of brands, leaves consumers with a challenge, they can’t just pick a brand with a green reputation and assume it will rise to the top of the class. They will need to know about each specific product.
Fortunately, there’s a guide put out to help them sort through that….
Copyright © 2012 Green Right Now | Distributed by GRN Network