Have you ever looked at the label of a cleaning supply and noticed that — unlike food and cosmetics — there's no list of ingredients?
The Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, which was enacted to ensure the chemical safety of stuff we put in or on our bodies, doesn't cover cleaning products.
That's kind of odd, since bodily exposure to cleaning chemicals happens pretty frequently.
Companies that make household cleaning products aren't required by law to print a full list of ingredients on their packaging.
Consumer advocate Sloan Barnett told EarthTalk, the Environmental Protection Agency "only requires companies to list 'chemicals of known concern' on their labels."
She explained that the big loophole is there aren't any testing requirements for most of the chemicals in cleaning products — by the companies, the EPA, or the Consumer Product Safety Commission, which has primary (if not weak) regulatory authority over household chemicals.
The reason for the secrecy around cleaning product ingredients is competition — companies that argue against disclosure do so on the basis that it's proprietary information that their success hinges on.
Just because the ingredients aren't listed doesn't mean products are bad or unsafe, but it is curious there is so little regulation.
On the plus side, companies started volunteering some of their ingredients in 2010. But in a 2009 interview, former Rep. Steve Israel (D-NY), whose mandatory labelingbills have never made it to a vote, said he wasn't all that impressed:
“What good is posting something on a Web site when you are on your knees ingesting floor wax? ... Voluntary compliance is an oxymoron. It may be good public relations, but not good policy.”
The chemicals industry may be resistant to change, but the consumers who use their products say they want it.
Legislatures across the country are being pressured to consider state laws to fill in where federal laws are falling short.
"In the U.S., chemicals are innocent until proven guilty."
Other countries model some alternative options for regulation. According to the Green Science Policy Institute's Dr. Arlene Blum, "In Europe they reverse the burden of proof. Manufacturers have to show that chemicals are safe before they introduce them. In the U.S., chemicals are innocent until proven guilty," referring to the lack of testing and data required for cleaning products to enter the market.
Why should we care? More transparency would help us make more informed consumer choices.
The trust companies would build with us could even be good for business. But a lot of the industry believes strongly enough that business would suffer, so they lobby to keep labeling mandates off the books.
Until then, we can do ourselves a favor by peeling back the glossy marketing and reading beyond the fine print to find products that won't cost our health or the environment. And we can start by looking for products with the seals above, each ingredient of which has cleared the EPA's health and environmental criteria.