How "Clean" are your Cleaning Products?

Although "green" has become a fashion statement in recent years, there is significant substance to the trend. In growing numbers, consumers are demanding to know the names and natures of chemicals they come into contact with every day, and which of those chemicals could be making them sick.

An article in Friday's New York Times reports that secrecy will soon be a thing of the past for manufacturers of household cleaners. Starting this January, all product ingredients except for those occurring in amounts less than one percent will be available to consumers in one of three ways: listed on the label, listed on the company web site, or listed by a recorded voice on the company's 800 number. The disclosure plan will be voluntary, with the idea that companies will feel competitive pressure to participate as consumers gravitate toward those with more candid labels.

Some environmentalists are applauding this first step in the industry's effort to come clean (in perhaps a very toxic manner!) about chemicals and health risks to consumers, but others complain that a voluntary program has no teeth at all. Representative Steve Israel of New York, who introduced a mandatory labeling bill in Congress, had this to say about the proposed program: "Voluntary compliance is an oxymoron. It may be good public relations, but not good policy." In order to be meaningful, critics argue, the program would not only have to be mandatory, but would also have to list every single ingredient, regardless of its percentage of the ingredients.

But when manufacturers of household cleaners keep ingredients to themselves, they are not necessarily trying to get away with something unhealthy or illegal. Usually the ingredients that make up the largest portions of household cleaners and detergents are common knowledge within the industry. Chemicals that make up less than one percent, those chemicals exempt from the disclosure program and the subject of consumer advocate ire, are precisely those "secret recipe" contributions that make one product smell like "white linen" and another like "mountain breeze." Unfortunately, it is also these chemicals that can be highly toxic, and although the companies argue they are used in trace amounts, research about contact over a lifetime is inconclusive.

GoodGuide is a great resource for comparing the safety, social and environmental responsibility of a variety of products (see my post from September 2), but it doesn't compare the abilities of competing products to really make a bathtub shine or a kitchen counter smell of lemons. Surprisingly, there is scant information online about which green products work and which are so-so. Here are a couple I found in a basic search:

http://www.grist.org/article/i-dont-want-no-scrub -- This is a post on Grist, testing eight bathroom products.
http://www.thegreenguide.com/buying-guide -- This is a rating system on National Geographic’s web site, where you can scroll to the bottom and choose the category of product you’re looking for. There is also a blog on a variety of green products that users can search through.

Follow this link for a brief green cleaner rating on About.com.