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?"
There is some good news: S.C. Johnson has announced that it will list its product ingredients on a website. The California-based eco-cleaner manufacturer Simple Green reported its ingredients to Earthjustice (PDF). Or you could make your own. Earthjustice has a few recipes, and (contain yourselves) even instructions on how to host your own green cleaning party this week.
Are there mystery ingredients in your favorite cleaner? Here's a list of manufacturers being sued for noncompliance with New York state law, along with the cleaning products in question: