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Safely clean?

Natural or plant-based cleaners might feel healthy and green, but in a largely unregulated market, anything goes.

April 28, 2008|Elena Conis | Special to The Times

The gap in scientific understanding stems from the fact that chemicals included in consumer products are studied for their immediate toxic effects, and they're often studied in isolation. In reality, however, chemicals -- such as those in cleaning products -- are used in a variety of combinations, and people are often exposed to low doses over long periods.

"We're not saying these cleaning products are going to kill you tomorrow," said Alexandra Gorman Scranton, director of science and research for Women's Voices for the Earth. "We're concerned about the long-term and cumulative effects, what happens when you add all these chemicals together over a lifetime."

Others are concerned that even limited evidence of toxicity suggests some chemicals in cleaning products may be particularly dangerous for kids, who spend a lot of time crawling on floors and placing hands and toys in their mouths.

But industry representatives are quick to point out that health problems occur only when cleaning products aren't used or stored properly -- and that the toxicity of any chemical is determined by its dose.

"This stuff isn't meant to be eaten, or drank, in any case," said Brian Sansoni, vice president of communications for the Soap and Detergent Assn.

Still, said Deborah Moore, executive director of the Berkeley-based Green Schools Initiative, "if you have kids, why expose them to a chemical that might be toxic if you don't need to?"

Heeding such consumer concerns, makers of natural cleaning products have swapped out petroleum-based foaming agents for plant-based ones, traded chlorine for hydrogen peroxide and opted for citric acid, tea tree oil and pine oil instead of synthetic disinfectants.

Mrs. Meyer's Clean Day products, for example, contain ingredients derived from corn, sugar cane and coconut in place of synthetic solvents , petroleum distillates, bleach and phosphates. Seventh Generation makes a bathroom cleaner that relies on hydrogen peroxide instead of chlorine for stain removal, and Method's all-purpose cleaner relies on soda ash to break down grease and oil.

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No standards set

But just because a cleaning product is biodegradable and made from plant-based sources doesn't mean it's without its own potential adverse effects on health.

"Certainly many natural chemicals are toxic too," Weissman said. Plant-based ingredients included in some green cleaners include limonene (a citrus-based oil that helps prevent residue build-up), pine oil and the foaming agent coconut diethanolamide -- all of which can cause allergic dermatitis.

And in March, a study of natural and nontoxic consumer products, commissioned by the watchdog group Organic Consumers Assn., found the suspected cancer-causing chemical 1,4-dioxane in roughly half of 100 tested products -- including several dishwashing liquids with words such as "Earth friendly" and "eco" in their brand names. The chemical is a byproduct of a process that uses petroleum-based chemicals to make detergents less harsh.

"It's really confusing for consumers to try to understand the claims of these products," said Moore, whose Green Schools Initiative has helped several California schools buy greener cleaning products. "You need a PhD to go to the supermarket and understand the labels on products."

The problem, critics say, is that labeling in the cleaning products industry is highly unregulated. The use of terms such as "green" and "natural" is monitored by the Federal Trade Commission, which aims to ensure that such terms are not misleading to consumers. But neither the commission nor any other agency sets standards that products must meet before they can call themselves green.

" 'Green' and 'natural' are marketing terms -- they're not terms of science," Sansoni said.

Cleaning product manufacturers -- green or otherwise -- are also not required by law to disclose all of their ingredients on their labels. Some green cleaner makers say they have disclosed all ingredients -- but there's no way for consumers to be certain that they have.

Consumer advocates therefore have pressed for stricter labeling rules, but the industry has resisted, arguing that long lists of ingredients would create a potentially hazardous distraction on product labels. "The safety and usage information is the most important information on a product label," Sansoni said. "If you try to turn the label into an encyclopedia, you obscure the most important information on there."

Proponents of greener cleaners, such as Weissman, say that if cleaning products didn't include potentially dangerous ingredients, such warnings wouldn't be necessary.

For now, green cleaning product manufacturers can opt to be certified by a third party, such as Green Seal or the Environmental Protection Agency's Design for the Environment program.

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