In a fight for transparency and accountability, health and environmental advocates took manufacturers Procter & Gamble, Colgate-Palmolive, Church and Dwight, and Reckitt-Benckiser to court today.
The nonprofit public interest law firm Earthjustice is filing the lawsuit on behalf of a coalition of state and national groups: Women's Voices for the Earth, Clean New York, Environmental Advocates of New York, New York Public Interest Research Group, Riverkeeper, Sierra Club, and American Lung Association in New York.
The first-of-its-kind case could have national implications. Independent studies into chemicals contained in cleaning products continue to find health effects ranging from asthma to hormone disruption. But ingredient disclosure requirements are virtually non-existent in the United States.
The exception is a long-forgotten New York state law 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.
But in the three decades since the 1976 law was passed, companies failed to file a single report. This fall, environmental and public health advocates sent letters to more than a dozen companies asking them to comply with the law. The companies targeted in today's lawsuit each ignored or refused this request.
"As the evidence showing the risks posed by chemicals in household cleaners continues to mount, people deserve to know whether the products they use to wash their dishes, launder their clothes, and clean their homes could be harmful," said Earthjustice attorney Keri Powell. "Sunlight is the best disinfectant, as they say. It's time to dust off this important law and take the first step in giving consumers the information they need to protect themselves and their families."
Several companies, including the California-based Sunshine Makers, Inc. (manufacturers of Simple Green products), complied with the request, filing reports with the state for the first time.
"Sierra Club is working through the courts and with the industry on efforts to fill in the gaps where the public still doesn't have the information it needs to make smart consumer decisions," said Tom Neltner, co-Chair of Sierra Club's Toxics Committee. "This New York law can protect consumers by allowing a government agency such as the New York Department of Environmental Conservation to review confidential business information."
Studies show links between chemicals in common household cleaners and respiratory irritation, asthma, and allergies. Occupational exposures to some ethylene glycol ethers, often used as solvents in cleaning products, are associated with red blood cell damage, reproductive system damage, and birth defects. Some solvents in cleaning products are also toxic to the nervous system.
"Environmental Advocates of New York has fought long and hard to protect New Yorkers from the dangerous effects of toxic chemicals in common household products. Twenty years ago we led the charge to ban nitrilotriacetic acid, NTA, in household products," said Saima Anjam, Environmental Advocates of New York. "Families across the state deserve to know what's in the cleansers they use every day. Back in the 1970s New York passed a law to force companies to report on what went into their products. It's on the books. Now it's time to enforce it."
Independent research has also documented troubling hormone-disrupting qualities of alkylphenol ethoxylates (APEs) -- commonly found in detergents, disinfectants, stain removers, and floor cleaners. Some breakdown products of these manmade chemicals can mimic the hormone estrogen and when released into the environment are toxic to aquatic wildlife. In laboratory studies, they cause breast cancer cells to proliferate, alter cells in the placenta, and cause reproductive abnormalities. This raises concerns about whether they may increase the risk of breast cancer, miscarriages, and reproductive damage in humans.
"It's outrageous that there are hidden ingredients in our cleaning products that may cause serious reproductive problems," says Tracy Lakatua, executive director of Women's Voices for the Earth. "In our 2007 report Household Hazards we identified hundreds of cleaning products containing ingredients linked to infertility, birth defects and asthma. Consumers deserve to know if these kinds of chemicals are in their products so they can make healthy choices for themselves and their families."
Cleaning chemicals can also have severe impacts on respiratory health. Ethanolamines, chemicals used as surfactants in many cleaning products, have been shown to trigger asthma. And mixing common chemicals ammonia and chlorine creates toxic gases called chloramines causing shortness of breath, chest pain, wheezing, nausea, watery eyes, irritation and pneumonia and fluid in the lungs.
"The public is well aware of the dangerous health effects of outdoor air pollution, however inside our homes, air pollution levels can be two to five times higher than outdoors," said Michael Seilback, Vice President, Public Policy & Communications for the American Lung Association in New York. "The public has a right to know whether the cleaning products they use in their homes contain harmful ingredients which could cause severe respiratory problems and trigger asthma attacks."
Because many cleaning chemicals survive the sewage system and are released into streams, there is growing concern that such chemicals pose a threat to fish and other aquatic wildlife, causing, among other things, the "feminization" of male fish and throwing ecosystems out of balance.
"Cleaning chemicals enter our waterways through our sewage and storm water systems, threatening our drinking water and poisoning fish and wildlife," said Robert Goldstein, Riverkeeper's general counsel. "The first step in protecting ourselves is to make sure consumers know what is in the products they buy so they can make better choices and, ultimately, force companies to stop using these unnecessary and dangerous chemicals."
Manufacturers have so far been successful in maintaining the status quo; no state or federal law requires companies to identify chemical ingredients on cleaning product labels. Although New York's reporting law has largely been forgotten, its mere existence means the state leads the nation in household cleaner right-to-know laws.
"Manufacturers of household cleaning products have a responsibility to inform consumers and state regulators about chemicals in their products that may endanger human health or the environment," said Laura Haight, senior environmental associate with NYPIRG. "This is not only common sense; here in New York, it's the law."
Read the lawsuit (PDF)