Those oft-repeated words by Justice Louis Brandeis—referring to the importance of transparency and openness—took on a special meaning this week when Earthjustice sued Lysol-maker Reckitt-Benckiser and other household cleaners manufacturing giants for failing to disclose the chemical ingredients in their products and the health risks they pose.
The UK-based Reckitt-Benkiser is being targeted in the lawsuit (pdf) along with Proctor & Gamble (Mr. Clean and others), Colgate-Palmolive (Ajax and others), Church and Dwight (Brillo and others).
Independent studies into chemicals contained in cleaning products continue to find health effects ranging from asthma to hormone disruption. That's why we say it's so important for people to know whether the products they use to wash their dishes, launder their clothes, and clean their homes could be harmful. And it's not just us saying it. There's a little-known law backing us up. And this first-of-its-kind case could bring national repercussions.
As anyone concerned with this issue will tell you, ingredient disclosure requirements are virtually non-existent in the United States. The exception is a long-forgotten New York state law—dating back to 1976—which requires household and commercial cleaner companies selling their products in New York to file semi-annual reports with the state listing the chemicals contained in their products and describing any company research on these chemicals' health and environmental effects.
If it wasn't for Keri Powell, an attorney in Earthjustice's Northeast office, the very existence of this law might have been lost to history. But one day, while thumbing through her personal copy of the New York Codes, Rules and Regulations, she stumbled upon this law, asked some questions, and soon discovered that it seemed no one in the state was aware the law even existed, let alone had devoted time to enforcing it. In the three decades since the law was passed, the state Department of Environmental Conservation didn't have a single report on record.
Powell decided it was time to dust off this law, filing a case this week on behalf of a coalition of state and national groups: Women's Voices for the Earth, Environmental Advocates of New York, New York Public Interest Research Group, Riverkeeper, Sierra Club, and American Lung Association in New York.
News of the lawsuit has traveled from coast to coast, with outlets from New York to California and everywhere in between taking notice. And if all goes well in the courts, we may someday be able to amend Justice Brandeis' words: crediting sunshine with bringing us a better and safer disinfectant!