The makers of Tide, Ajax and other common household cleansers are being asked to come clean about their ingredients.
Environmental and health activists announced plans Tuesday for a lawsuit to make Procter & Gamble Co., Colgate-Palmolive Co. and two other major firms reveal the chemical ingredients of their cleaning products and their research on the products' effects.
The suit, to be filed today in New York, seeks to use a little-known 1976 New York law passed to combat phosphates in detergent.
The activists "say people deserve to know whether the products they use to wash their dishes and clean their homes could be harmful," said New York lawyer Keri Powell, an attorney for Earthjustice, a nonprofit public interest law firm.
The lawsuit is being filed on behalf of six state and national environmental and health groups, including the Sierra Club and American Lung Assn. in New York.
Responding to the lawsuit, the Soap and Detergent Assn. expressed disappointment that activist groups were "using an arcane New York state regulation as a way to disparage cleaning product formulators whose products are used safely and effectively by millions of people every day."
The industry plans a major push next year to make more information available about ingredients, said Michelle Radecki, general counsel of the Washington-based group. It represents 110 cleaning product manufacturers that together make more than 90% of U.S. cleaning products.
"The cleaning product industry is committed to providing more information than ever before on cleaning product ingredients," she said.
Last September, the coalition of groups sent letters to several manufacturers informing them of the New York law and its requirement that they file semiannual ingredient and research reports with the state's Department of Environmental Conservation.
The letters asked the manufacturers to comply within 30 days.
"Eco-friendly" cleaning product manufacturers Method Products Inc., based in San Francisco, and Seventh Generation Inc., in Burlington, Vt., were among the companies that complied with the request.
Cincinnati-based Procter & Gamble, New York-based Colgate-Palmolive and Princeton, N.J.-based Church & Dwight Co. (maker of the popular Arm & Hammer products) all refused to comply; Britain-based Reckitt Benckiser Group (which makes Woolite) did not respond.
The lawsuit seeks to invoke Article 35 of New York's Environmental Conservation Law -- a statute that's seen little action since it was passed in 1976 to combat phosphates, a family of chemicals once widely used in detergents until they were associated with negative health effects.
Health issues are central to the new lawsuit as well. Many of the activist groups in the lawsuit link the chemicals in household cleaning products to asthma, skin sensitization and other human health issues, as well as reproductive problems in aquatic life.
The Consumer Product Safety Commission is the federal agency charged with overseeing home cleaning products, but it doesn't require cleaning product manufacturers to provide comprehensive ingredient lists, so few companies do.
And although the federal Toxic Substances Control Act was enacted in 1976 to regulate the introduction of chemicals, it grandfathered in most of the existing chemicals on the market.
In California, two laws were approved in 2008. Together they require the state to identify "chemicals of concern," to evaluate safer alternatives and to create a scientific clearinghouse for information on chemicals' effects, but environmental and health groups say it will be years before consumers see results.