Which Household Cleaners Contain Secret Toxic Ingredients?

Chemical structure of the alkylphenol nonylphenol.

Chemical structure of the alkylphenol nonylphenol.

By Kiera Butler for Mother Jones:

The label on my shower spray cleaner claims it’s supposed to smell like ylang ylang. To me it smells like, well, chemicals. I was curious to see whether any real ylang ylang actually made its way into my cleaner, so I looked up the ingredients online. No ylang ylang (or any other plant for that matter) in sight. Near the end of a long list of ingredients were the words “fragrance oil.” Mysterious. Is my shower spray hiding something?

The environmental law nonprofit Earthjustice thinks it might be. Turns out that despite a New York state law that requires manufacturers of cleaning products to disclose the ingredients in their products, very few manufacturers are willing to cough up the full list. Earthjustice contacted dozens of companies and asked them to comply with the law, but four major manufacturers refused. (Full list of companies and products below.) Earthjustice and a coalition of other environmental groups responded by suing them (PDF). Jamie Silberberger is the director of programs and policy at Women’s Voices for the Earth, another group in the coalition. “We know that there are chemicals in cleaning products that are linked to reproductive harm, asthma, and a whole host of other problems,” says Silberberger. “But if consumers don’t know what’s in these products, they can’t make an informed decision about what to buy. We have the right to know what we’re being exposed to.”

What we do know: Many common ingredients pose risks both to humans and the environment. Alkylphenol ethoxylates (APEs), which are used as “surfactants” to make cleaning solutions spread over a surface smoothly, are an endocrine disruptor and are banned in Europe. Ethanolamine, also a surfactant, can cause asthma attacks. Most troubling: Even chemicals that are relatively innocuous on their own can combine to create toxic substances. Ammonia and chlorine, for example, can form a toxic gas called chloramine, which can cause a whole host of respiratory symptoms. When all those chemicals end up in waterways, it’s bad news for wildlife.

A few companies (including those being sued) have set up a voluntary ingredient disclosure agreement, but Silberberger says it is incomplete: manufacturers are allowed to simply use the words “dyes,” “preservatives,” and “fragrances” instead of actually listing the ingredients in the additives. Scary, considering fragrances often contain phthalates, among other potentially toxic chemicals. Another problem: Companies are only required to list “intentional ingredients,” meaning substances created by combining two ingredients or added during the manufacturing process aren’t listed. What’s more, the website is controlled by the industry, meaning companies make their own rules. Points out Earthjustice’s Kathleen Sutcliffe, “If they’re listing their products on the website, then why are they still refusing to file them with New York state?”…

[continues at Mother Jones]

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  • 5by5

    I think people should start researching just the random chemical names you see on most products simply to educate themselves about precisely what that stuff does. Why is it in there?

    One day I literally took a random item out of my kitchen cabinet, picked out one of the names of the chemicals included in that food product (in this case, food coloring) and went to the Dow Chemical website to look it up. The chemical was propylene glycol.

    I discovered that in addition to being used in food coloring, it was also used in shampoo, deodorant, toothpaste, perfume, and dozens of other products we regularly ingest, or spray/slather onto our epidermis.

    I discovered that the American chemical industry, and the FDA had determined that it was “safe” in a certain microgram amount for use in food products.

    I also discovered that it was used to de-ice planes.

    I also discovered that it's banned for use in food in Europe because of it's cancer-causing properties.

    I discovered that the U.S. chemical industry “disputes” that, again claiming it's safety in these small amounts.

    I also discovered that they ignored one simple fact: aggregate toxicity.

    They are probably technically absolutely correct that it IS safe in those small amounts. But if its in my food coloring, and food coloring is used in nearly every pre-processed food product on the market, how truly “micro” is the amount most people are consuming any more?

    And I learned all that simply by looking up just ONE of the chemicals listed as an ingredient in our products.

  • http://2012prophecy.net DM I.M.Cango

    I love the smell of carcinogenics in the morning. It smells like….cancer.

  • Belcat

    Gotta love “fragrance”, a good way to put in a whole host of chemicals. Good reason to go for the unscented version. Plus, that “fragrance” may be trying to cover some smelly chemicals.

    Regarding propylene glycol, the Wikipedia entry claims the body will break it down. Hence, accumulation seems unlikely. Personally I am more concerned by Sodium laureth sulfate, especially since it sometimes comes with the known carcinogen 1,4-dioxane. Where is this chemical? Anything that produces a foam will have it, so almost all shampoos, bubble bath and soaps.

  • Belcat

    Gotta love “fragrance”, a good way to put in a whole host of chemicals. Good reason to go for the unscented version. Plus, that “fragrance” may be trying to cover some smelly chemicals.

    Regarding propylene glycol, the Wikipedia entry claims the body will break it down. Hence, accumulation seems unlikely. Personally I am more concerned by Sodium laureth sulfate, especially since it sometimes comes with the known carcinogen 1,4-dioxane. Where is this chemical? Anything that produces a foam will have it, so almost all shampoos, bubble bath and soaps.

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