Are 'Green' Cleaners Really Green?

green policeSupposedly "green" cleaners may not be as green as you think. You're probably being exposed to chemicals even if you're using presumably eco-friendly household cleaners, laundry detergents, air fresheners or personal-care products around the house, a new study suggests. Some of those chemicals are toxic.

Tests of 25 commonly used scented products, including some marketed as natural or green but also conventional ones, found 133 chemicals all told (24 of them toxic), with an average of 17 chemicals emitted per product, according to the University of Washington study published in the journal Environmental Impact Assessment Review.
Every single product emitted at least one chemical classified as toxic or hazardous under federal laws.

Certainly, this runs counter to conventional wisdom: "For 'green' products, emissions of these compounds was not significantly different from the other products," the study says. "We found similar chemicals among the 25 fragranced products tested in this study," researchers noted. Almost none of the chemicals was named on labels, which researchers noted is perfectly legal under U.S. regulations.

Lead researcher Anne Steinemann suggests that wary consumers use simpler options such as cleaning with vinegar and baking soda (find some recipes here), opening windows to air out the place and using fragrance-free products.

So, which products were studied exactly? Maddeningly, researchers declined to name them. That's because identifying brands wasn't central to the study's objectives. And the researchers didn't want to imply that untested brands contain more or fewer chemicals. "We don't want to give people the impression that if we reported on product 'A' and they buy product 'B,' that they're safe," Steinemann said. "We found potentially hazardous chemicals in all of the fragranced products we tested."

So Consumer Ally's Green Police sought out the Material Data Safety Sheets of various household cleaners to alert readers to which hazardous ingredients manufacturers say are inside.

Here's a look at some cleaners (excluding Simple Green, which we covered here):

ECOVER All-Purpose Cleaner
"Hazardous components" listed by manufacturer: Ecover contains ethanol (a/k/a ethyl alcohol), alkyl polyglycoside, perfume and limonene-D (or D-limonene, which gets its name from lemon rind). When considered individually and not as part of a greater whole, the chemicals' hazards are as follows, according to the product's Material Data Safety Sheet: Ethanol is highly flammable. Alkyl polyglycoside can damage eyes. Perfume and limonene-D can irritate skin; may cause sensitization by skin contact; and are "very toxic to aquatic organisms, may cause long-term adverse effects in the aquatic environment." Taken as a whole, the company considers its product perfectly safe. [Read all ingredients on the product label or the company web site here, the company says.]

Observations: It may come as a surprise that California's Air Resources Board recommends avoiding use of citrus-based cleaners, especially on smoggy days because they contain volatile chemicals known as terpenes (in this case, D-limonene), which can react with trace levels of ozone to form formaldehyde, a human carcinogen. Still, D-limonene is better than man-made solvents, says John Marshall, lab director for the Toxic Use Reduction Institute at the University of Massachusetts-Lowell: "I would use it in place of something even more hazardous." Peter Malaise, Ecover's concept manager based at the company headquarters in Belgium, stressed to AOL Green Police that all Ecover fragrances are plant-based, not petroleum-derived, and only very small amounts of fragrances are in its products -- typically 0.2% in the concentrate form, which is 0.0002% when diluted by consumers for the usage solution. "The environmental impact of such an amount," Malaise said via email, "is comparable to that of a grain of sand in the Nevada desert."

In one single lemon fruit, there's as much lemon oil as in one gallon of Ecover all-purpose cleaner, Malaise said. Lemon oil is the same thing that is widely used in candies and drinks. "Must lemons be banned from sale?" he argued. "Must we campaign against consuming lemonade, Earl Grey tea, mojito...?"

Hazardous components and observations: The thing to remember here is to buy the right bottle. Manufacturer Johnson Diversey makes a green multipurpose cleaner for industrial use called "Glance NA" and several non-green versions, including the similarly named "Glance HC."Hazardous ingredients in the green cleaner are ethyl alcohol and sodium lauryl sulfate; they're apparently fine with Green Seal, which certifies Glance NA, though the nonprofit Environmental Working Group considers the latter ingredient a moderate hazard due to neurotoxicity and cancer concerns. "Glance HC" contains sodium lauryl sulfate, too, as well as ammonium hydroxide and 2-butoxyethanol, a chemical that has damaged red blood cells in lab animals and "may be a carcinogen in humans," warns New Jersey's Department of Health and Human Services. The conventional product emitted four times more contaminants than the green version when Environmental Working Group tested Glance NA and Glance HC as part of its tests of school cleaners.

Seventh Generation cleanerSEVENTH GENERATION Natural All-Purpose Cleaner
"Hazardous ingredients"
listed by manufacturer on MSDS:"No known health hazards."But the bottle's ingredient panel includes methylisothiazolinone and benzisothiazolinone (preservatives), which the Environmental Working Group calls moderate hazards. (See the full list of stated ingredients here.)

Observations: Research studies have found that exposure to the individual ingredientbenzisothiazolinone irritates skin and is linked to cancer, while methylisothiazolinone brings immune system and allergy concerns, Environmental Working Group says. Seventh Generation spokesperson Chrystie Heimert tells AOL Green Police that "it is the hazard of the product that is important to consider, not the hazard of individual ingredients." Preservatives help prevent microorganism growth, and "currently there are no natural preservatives that have been proven safe and effective in cleaning products like ours. However, we have been working to improve the authenticity of our preservative system and are diligently searching for a wholly natural preservative system."

CLOROX Green Works Natural All-Purpose Cleaner
"Hazardous ingredients"listed by manufacturer: Like Ecover, it contains corn-based ethyl alcohol and a coconut-based cleaning agent called alkyl polyglucoside, a "non-ionic surfactant." (Read the non-hazardous ingredients here.)

Observations: "They seem to be going down the right path," says TURI's Marshall. Ethyl alcohol is what people drink. "Is it without harm? No, because if you drink too much of it, things can go wrong," Marshall says, but of course people don't drink cleaners. Note: The Sierra Club logo on the label doesn't mean the group endorses the product; it just means the manufacturer supports the Sierra Club. Also, the "Design for the Environment" logo shows the product is part of that program, but the program isn't as exacting, green-wise, as the preferable Green Seal, which tests products to ensure they work and are green. A complaint we heard from a representative of Women's Voices for the Earth is that this shows Clorox knows how to make a green product, so why doesn't it make all Clorox products green?

SUSTAINABLE EARTH by Staples Multi-Purpose Cleaner
Hazardous components
listed by manufacturer: Like Ecover and Clorox Green Works, it contains ethanol and non-ionic surfactants. The other hazard listed is fragrance. Fragrances can be a problem: Previous work by UW's Steinemann and a colleague found that nearly two out of five Americans report adverse effects when exposed to some kind of fragranced product.

Observation: It's certified by Green Seal. Environmental Working Group found that green cleaners certified by Green Seal or EcoLogo contain fewer chemicals with documented health concerns.

Here are some links to ingredients of some other products: Find Mrs. Meyers Clean Day here. Go here for Method, here for Formula 409, here for Fantastik and here for some other conventional cleaners.

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