From Living On Earth (portions of an insteresting radio discussion of New York’s attempt New York to revive a 1976 law requiring manufacturers to disclose chemical ingredients in household cleaners):
GELLERMAN: These days, finding out the chemicals in household cleaners is hit or miss. But 35 years ago, the New York legislature decided it was time for manufacturers of cleaning products to come clean and reveal their ingredients. The law was never enforced though – that is, until now. The New York Department of Environmental Conservation is dusting off that long forgotten law and holding hearings on how to implement it. Urvashi Rangan is an environmental scientist and Director of Technical Policy for Consumer’s Union. Thanks for joining us.
RANGAN: Oh you’re so welcome; it’s a pleasure to be here.
GELLERMAN: So how is it that a 35 year-old law requiring disclosure of chemicals in products has never been enforced?
RANGAN: Yeah, it’s not really clear how it was never enforced. A group called Earth Justice, which is an environmental law firm actually came upon the statute and filed suit against four large cleaning manufacturers, to force them to disclose the ingredients on their formulations. They did not win that lawsuit, but they began efforts to encourage the Department of Environmental Conservation in New York to enforce the law in and of themselves.
GELLERMAN: So what are the benefits of disclosure? I mean, why disclose?
RANGAN: Most consumers think what they pull off the supermarket shelves is safe, or has been demonstrated as being safe. They would be surprised to learn that a number of the ingredients that are used in cleaning products today may not be as safe as they think. Beyond that, consumers want to be able to purchase the safest products on the market. And, without full ingredient disclosure, they simply can’t make informed or comparative choices.
GELLERMAN: What about federal laws? Aren’t there federal laws requiring disclosure of chemicals in compounds?
RANGAN: There are some federal laws regarding incredibly hazardous materials used in cleaning products. If you have a hazardous material, or the product itself is hazardous, you have to use certain types of labels. If you have an antibacterial cleaner, or a disinfectant, it’s actually a pesticidal product, and the active ingredients in these pesticidal products, have to be disclosed.
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GELLERMAN: More and more products are making a virtue out of using the quote, unquote, natural ingredients. I’m trying to find out what “natural” means, and, according to federal law, it’s kind of meaningless.
RANGAN: Yeah, unfortunately, the natural label is almost one of the top green-washing terms for us. There are very few standards behind what that term means. It only necessarily might mean that something came from a natural source. But, you can extract something from a plant and you can also chemically react that into an ingredient. And so, that term is very loosey goosey, and consumers shouldn’t rely on that term without doing some additional homework. Non-toxic is another one of those labels that just has no standards behind it and no verification what so ever.
And, in fact, in a report we did on cleaners and reported that non-toxic had no standardized meaning, we heard back from a company who sent us a lot of documentation to support their use of non-toxic. In review of that documentation, we actually came upon a carcinogen that’s used in the product, and so, it’s just sort of highlights how companies can use that term really any which way they want to, even if they have a little bit of carcinogen in their product to.
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The entire transcript, links to the podcast, and related links can all be found here.