Mr. Clean—Tell Us What You're Made Of

Consumers will get info on what's in their household cleaners

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A few months ago, I told you about our tough legal fight in New York to force household cleaner manufacturers to reveal what chemicals they are putting in products that we use every day in our homes.

Today, I am glad to report that our work has persuaded the state of New York to take action. The Commissioner of New York’s Department of Environmental Conservation last week told manufacturers to disclose what their products contain and any health risks they pose, the first such request ever made by regulators in any state. (You can send Commissioner Pete Grannis a note of thanks here.)

This is a huge win for consumers that wouldn’t have happened without strong legal pressure.

You might recall from my previous column that a long-forgotten state law requiring manufacturers to come clean was unearthed by former Earthjustice attorney Keri Powell a few years ago. Following her discovery, Earthjustice and our coalition partners mounted an aggressive legal and advocacy campaign that ultimately triggered the state’s decision to start enforcing this important right-to-know law. A big thanks go out to our supporters, who held green-cleaning parties in their homes and helped generate nearly 40,000 emails to decision-makers and cleaning product companies.

But, this isn’t just a victory for New York state. Because many of the manufacturers doing business in the state of New York sell their products throughout the U.S., we all stand to benefit. After all, Procter & Gamble’s Mr. Clean products and other national brands are the same whether you’re in Poughkeepsie or Portland.

The promise of greater transparency comes not a moment too soon. Consumers are increasingly concerned that the cost of a clean home is more than dollars and cents: the price tag might include their health. Independent studies have shown links between chemicals commonly used in household cleaners and serious health problems like asthma, nerve damage and hormone disruption.

Transparency regarding the contents of household cleaners and the health risks they pose will ultimately allow consumers nationwide to make informed purchases to protect themselves and their families.

The good news about household cleaners arrives as momentum is building in the United States and abroad for reform of how countries protect their citizens from exposure to toxic chemicals. Europe is moving forward with a program called REACH that requires chemical manufacturers to prove the safety of a chemical before it is permitted for use in consumer products.

Though the United States is lagging behind in similar efforts, Congress is considering making important changes to the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), the U.S. law that does a poor job of protecting us from more than 80,000 chemical compounds that are approved for use in products ranging from cell phones to toys.

Ultimately, the American public has a right to know about the chemicals to which we are exposed, often on a daily basis. Companies like to keep this information hidden from public view, and the federal and state agencies charged with shining a light often choose to keep people in the dark. Which means it’s Earthjustice’s job to make sure people get the information they need and are entitled to.

The contents of household cleaners aren’t the only chemical lists being withheld. At the height of the Gulf oil spill—as nearly 2 million gallons of an oil dispersant called Corexit was sprayed on the oil—we had to demand that the EPA unveil the chemicals in that dispersant.

The EPA had authorized this unprecedented use of Corexit without testing its effects on human health, let alone wildlife and the other living organisms of the Gulf. Earthjustice filed a Freedom of Information Act request to obtain Corexit’s ingredient list and a lawsuit to obtain health and safety data on those ingredients once the list was revealed. We are now petitioning the EPA to follow long-neglected requirements of the Oil Pollution Act and define how much dispersant can be used in which parts of the ocean.

We shouldn’t have to fight tooth and nail to uncover basic safety information. Protection of the health and safety of the American public, not the secrecy of chemical manufacturers, is paramount. But as long as companies withhold important safety information—and federal and state agencies let them do it—Earthjustice will continue fighting for your right to know.

Trip Van Noppen served as Earthjustice’s president from 2008 until he retired in 2018. A North Carolina native, Trip said of his experience: “Serving as the steward of Earthjustice for the last decade has been the greatest honor of my life.”

Established in 2008, Earthjustice’s Northeast Office, located in New York City, is at the forefront of issues at the intersection of energy, environmental health, and social justice.