Public health and environmental advocates faced off against household cleaning giants Procter & Gamble, Colgate-Palmolive, Church and Dwight and Reckitt-Benckiser in a Manhattan court today in a fight for transparency about the toxic chemicals in cleaning products.
The manufacturing giants are refusing to follow a New York state law requiring them to disclose the chemical ingredients in their products and the health risks they pose. Independent studies show a link between many chemicals commonly found in cleaning products and health effects ranging from nerve damage to hormone disruption. With mounting concern about the potential hazards of chemicals in these products, advocates are defending consumers' right to know and asking companies to follow the law.
"Sunlight is the best disinfectant," said Earthjustice attorney Keri Powell. "It's time for these companies to stop hiding behind a veil of secrecy and give consumers the information they need to protect themselves and their families."
The first-of-its-kind lawsuit could have national implications and comes as momentum builds nationally and internationally for toxics chemical reform. Today, the United States Senate committee on Environment and Public Works held a hearing looking into the current science on public exposures to toxic chemicals. Advocates are awaiting introduction of federal legislation to reform the nation's badly broken system of regulating toxic chemicals. And internationally, companies are preparing to comply with Europe's new chemical regulations (known as REACH).
"The bottom line is that hazardous ingredients that have not been tested for long-term health impacts, like asthma or even birth defects, are being used in some cleaning products," said Erin Switalski, executive director of Women's Voices for the Earth. "Consumers have a right to know if they are spraying their kids' high chairs with toxic chemicals. Without full ingredient disclosure from these companies, there's simply no way to be sure."
The nonprofit public interest law firm Earthjustice brought the court case last year on behalf of a coalition of state and national groups, including Women's Voices for the Earth, Environmental Advocates of New York, New York Public Interest Research Group, Clean New York, Riverkeeper, Sierra Club, and American Lung Association in New York.
"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."
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 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.
"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."
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.
"Information is the best armor we have to protect our families from everyday hazards. And New York State already has a law on the books requiring companies to report the toxic chemicals that go into their products. The law needs to be enforced," said Saima Anjam, Environmental Advocates of New York.
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.
"Even today, women are still overwhelmingly doing the majority of cleaning, both in the home and as housekeeping staff in most workplaces. Since a woman's body is everyone's first environment, it's essential we protect them from chemicals known to cause reproductive harm, and New York should fully exercise its statutory right to do so," said Kathy Curtis, policy director from Clean New York.
Read the lawsuit (PDF)