As New York State moves forward with a proposal requiring manufacturers of household cleaners to tell consumers what chemicals are in their products, public interest groups submitted comments this week on the plan. The coalition of 42 public interest groups applauded the state Department of Environmental Conservation's continuing effort, and urged the agency to specifically require companies to disclose any chemicals in their products that cause nerve damage or hormone disruption, even if industry asks to keep this information secret from consumers.
The State’s proposal came after widespread public pressure and a lawsuit brought by advocates to enforce a first-of-its-kind but long-ignored set of 1976 regulations requiring manufacturers of household cleaners to reveal the chemical ingredients in their products and any health risks they pose. The lawsuit was brought against Procter & Gamble, Colgate-Palmolive, Arm & Hammer parent company Church & Dwight, and Lysol-maker Reckitt Benckiser. All four companies, when informed by advocates about the regulations, either ignored the notification or refused to file disclosure reports with the State.
“Our new Governor has long been a champion of the public’s right-to-know. As Attorney General, his Project Sunlight offered a comprehensive database of government information for the first time in New York’s history. Now, DEC is poised to make history again by enforcing New York’s chemical disclosure requirements,” said Earthjustice attorney Deborah Goldberg, who is handling the court case against the companies. “Unfortunately, industry groups don’t seem nearly as committed to this effort. Public interest groups have followed the state’s timeline and made our comments available to all stakeholders. We’d be very happy to see the same kind of behavior from the cleaning products industry.”
Public interest groups are backing a swift timetable for ingredient disclosure as well as a convenient information hub for consumers to search and compare chemical ingredients among different brands and products. The agency still has not said when the companies will be required to file this information, but has said it is committed to making this information easily accessible to consumers.
“Consumers have a right to know what is in the cleaning products that they use—just as they have come to expect from food. While companies have made some progress in ingredient disclosures, the efforts are inconsistent, spotty and don’t provide adequate safety information,” said Dr. Urvashi Rangan, Director of Technical Policy at Consumers Union, nonprofit publisher of Consumer Reports. “Companies should welcome this opportunity to provide a level playing field and be able to provide consumers the information they need in a consistent and comprehensive fashion.”
Forty-two groups, representing a range of consumer, labor, health, environmental and good government groups signed on to the comments, which praised DEC staff for their steady progress.
“New Yorkers want to know what’s in the products we use in our homes every day, and the Department of Environmental Conservation understands why it’s important to share—and not hide—information about poisonous chemicals in some household cleansers. We’re glad New York State is gearing up to require cleaning product manufacturers to come clean about the toxic chemicals in their products,” said Saima Anjam of Environmental Advocates of New York.
In the document, the groups cautioned that the agency should require companies to disclose any chemicals in their products that cause nerve damage or hormone disruption, in addition to impacts that DEC listed, such as cancer or asthma—even if these chemicals are only present in small amounts.
“I'm sick and tired of standing in front of a store shelf and being utterly stymied by the lack of information I would need to make an educated choice about how to clean my home without contaminating it in the bargain,” said Kathy Curtis, mother of four and policy director for Clean New York. “Since household cleansers are products we all use, requiring disclosure of their ingredients would be a good start toward requiring full disclosure of all ingredients in all products.”
Cleaning product manufacturers are taking notice of the changing climate toward toxics in products. In response to a letter sent by the groups involved in the court case, several companies, including the California-based Sunshine Makers, Inc. (manufacturers of Simple Green products), filed reports with the State for the first time. And three weeks after the groups’ disclosure lawsuit was filed, household cleaner manufacturing giant SC Johnson announced that it would begin disclosing the chemical ingredients in its products through product labels and a website. The company is now in the midst of a high-profile national advertising campaign touting its efforts.
But other companies, including the four targeted in the lawsuit, are hiding behind an industry-backed voluntary disclosure plan, which fails to connect the dots between chemicals and health hazards and thus falls seriously short of the more complete disclosure required by New York’s regulations.
“Consumers have a right to know what’s in their cleaning products so they can have the information they need to select the safest products for use in their homes,” says Jamie Silberberger, director of programs and policy at Women’s Voices for the Earth. “The industry’s proposal falls far short of meaningful disclosure. In fact, it’s a step behind what companies like SC Johnson & Sons and Seventh Generation are already publicly disclosing.”
“The difference between the cleaning product industry’s voluntary program and the full disclosure required under New York's law could mean the difference between triggering or preventing an asthma attack,” said Laura Haight, senior environmental associate with the New York Public Interest Research Group.
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.
“Common household cleaners such as oven cleaner, glass cleaner and furniture polish contain chemicals that are linked to serious health effects,” said Sharonda Williams, Environmental Policy and Advocacy Coordinator WEACT For Environmental Justice. “The health risks are especially pronounced for low income people and people of color who shop at the 99 cent stores in their communities—often the purveyors of some of the most toxic household cleaners on the market.”
New York’s policy move could have national implications, as momentum builds here and abroad for toxic chemical reform. Congress is facing pressure to overhaul U.S. chemical policy and require the chemical industry to prove the safety of a chemical before it could be used in products. Meanwhile, states are taking the lead by implementing laws to protect their residents and leveraging limited resources by compiling information about toxic chemicals and their safer alternatives through the Interstate Chemicals Clearinghouse. Internationally, companies are preparing to comply with a similar European law (known as REACH) already taking effect.
“If companies want to sell certain products in Europe, they need to demonstrate they are safe for the intended consumer,” said Christine Brouwer, Co-Founder & Executive Director of Mira’s Movement. “We’re still a long way from that standard. But New York’s right-to-know law is a good first step. And as much as companies might wish otherwise, this law isn’t going away and neither are we.”