Science & Environmental Health Network

Science, Ethics and Action in the Public Interest
Science & Environmental Health Network - In The News
(or: How Bad Could it Be? -- I Bought it at the Supermarket.)
Rachel's Democracy & Health News, Jun. 26, 2008
By Katie Silberman

The other day I noticed that had a feature on going green. No crunchy Birkenstocks for Oprah, no: instead this was the "gorgeously green lifestyle checklist." It had a long list -- change your light bulbs, use healthy cosmetics, eat organic -- but my favorite part was the end. It had a checklist for your intentions.

Do you wish to become healthier? Do you want to live according to your deepest values? You actually had to check these off.

And I realized that Oprah is right. Like any other behavior change - diet, exercise, that guy you really need to break up with -- first you have to make up your mind that you're ready to act. And to do that, you need some compelling reasons. This article aims to lay out some compelling reasons for changing your life by changing your cleaning products.

I. Are we ready? or: Times Have Changed

To decide whether to change direction, first we have to know where we are. It's important to understand that much of what we currently know as American culture developed in a different time. Our laws, economic system, shopping habits -- the way we manufacture, transport, use, and throw away all our stuff -- was developed in the late 19th and early- to mid-20th centuries.

This was a time when we thought the earth was limitless -- that we could produce as much as we could, extract as much as we could, and therefore dump as much as we could and pollute as much as we could, and there would be no consequences.

Now we know that isn't true. Now we know there are consequences. First, the Earth has only a certain amount of abuse it can handle, as we clearly see with global warming, drought, wildfires, extinction of whole species, and the perfect balance of nature disrupted.

Currently in the San Francisco Bay Area, several counties are rationing water because the snow pack in the Sierras has fallen so much in the past few years that the reservoirs can't serve the cities.

We now know we are capable of destroying our only home.

But our bodies also have a limit to what we can handle. We see this with rising incidence rates of diseases that are linked to environmental exposure. Things like childhood asthma, childhood cancer, and breast cancer -- diseases that could not be rising so fast based on genetics alone.

I don't like to cite statistics because they tend to be more confusing than helpful, but I want to highlight just one: pre-school asthma rates have gone up 160% in less than 15 years. Obviously toddlers haven't changed that much -- trust me, I have one. So what has?

Something is different in the world than it used to be, and our bodies are fighting hard to keep up.

So we see that the Earth has its limits, and our bodies have their limits. But there's one other thing we now understand more clearly than we did 50 or 100 years ago: corporations don't always tell us the truth.

This is relevant to the marketplace of cleaners, because hundreds of products are on the market, sold to us as healthy for our families. We've all seen the ads with adorable babies crawling on sparkling clean floors. What they don't reveal is which chemicals are absorbing into that baby's skin while she's down there.

In fact, we are still living with the consequences of a mid-20th century, post-War conviction that all industry is good, chemicals are the wave of the future, and government should stay out of the way. So where has this gotten us?

II. How bad could it be? I bought it at the supermarket.

I want to digress for a moment and discuss chemicals policy in this country. I know that sounds really boring and you're thinking "how wonky can you be?" -- but it's important to understand how chemicals are regulated in the U.S. so we can see how a product that is known to cause asthma or birth defects can be perfectly legal.

This is also the key to understanding a whole constellation of issues - from toxic toys to lead in lipstick to BPA in baby bottles -- that have been in the news lately. I think sometimes these news stories start to feel so arbitrary and overwhelming that it's hard to make sense of them -- is everything toxic? So I want to explain where we are.

As mentioned, most of our laws governing the use of chemicals in consumer products -- the stuff we use every day, like shampoo, makeup, toys, water bottles, furniture, paint, and cleaning products -- come from a mid-20th century ideal that all industry was good.

As a result, the main law governing chemicals in this country, the Toxic Substance Control Act, passed in 1976, literally assumes everything on the market at that point must be safe. This was not based on scientific testing, epidemiology, health studies.... nothing but the political expediency of regulating hundreds of thousands of chemicals: how do you do it?

The way Congress chose was to grandfather in everything on the market in 1976 and leave it on the market with no scrutiny at all. This is still over 90% of chemicals in our products today, almost none of which have ever been tested for their effects on human health.

The law then says that for future chemicals to come on the market, they would have to be submitted to the government before going on the market. And what do you think is required in that pre-market notice? The manufacturer would have to test the chemical and show that it didn't harm human health? No. It didn't cause environmental damage? No. At least it wasn't the worst tool for the job? No.

Basically manufacturers don't have to show any health or safety information at all, unless they happen to have done it on their own. Government has a brief chance to try to spot a problem if they can; otherwise industry can legally put substances on the market without testing them for safety , label them for any variety of uses, and they're good to go.

The end result is that thousands more chemicals have been put on the market since 1976 with little or, often, no information about their safety at all.

So, you might ask, where's the regulation in this regulatory system? As it stands, the EPA has the power to remove a toxic chemical from the market only if the EPA can prove that it's dangerous. This takes years of scientific testing, and often ends in the EPA being sued by the manufacturer of that chemical.

So while years go by, real people are being harmed by these chemicals - the bodies are piling up. We know a whole suite of dangerous chemicals crosses the placenta and can affect a developing baby in utero.

We find chemicals in umbilical cord blood and breastmilk. And still this is not enough for the EPA to take action. In fact, with over 81,000 chemicals on the market, the EPA has restricted only five since 1976.

This is backwards. Instead of the EPA having to prove that a chemical is dangerous before they can take it off the market, a manufacturer should have to show that it's safe before putting it on the market. This is called "shifting the burden of proof," and it is the main reason why so many of the products we live with every day have the potential to harm our health.

It's worthwhile to note that the European Union actually passed a sweeping chemicals reform law recently that does shift the burden of proof and require safety testing from manufacturers before a product is allowed on the market. And as we know, Europe's economy is stronger than ours. In fact, some US manufacturers are now making two parallel product lines: one with dangerous chemicals, for the US market, and one without, for the European Union (you see some products now, like Avalon Organics cosmetics, that say "EU compliant" -- meaning they're selling the same, safer product in the U.S. that they're selling in Europe).

Manufacturers know how to make their products safer in a cost- effective way. There is no reason for this backward system in the US other than bad political decisions.

III. What's the Dirt on Cleaners?

Let's look at household cleaning products. Now we understand how a chemical that may cause asthma, cancer or birth defects could be in this product, sitting on the shelf at the grocery store. But there's one more piece to the non-regulation of cleaning products in this country, and that is that they are not required to list their ingredients on the label.

A leading laundry soap, for example, has more than 400 ingredients, but the manufacturer calls them a "trade secret" and doesn't list them on the box. So the first thing to look at, when you are buying cleaning products, is the ingredient list.

If the manufacturers won't tell you what's in their product, do you trust it enough to spray it in your tub and literally put your naked child in that tub? Choose only products that list all ingredients on the label, so you know what you're getting.

What are the chemicals of concern in cleaning products? This piece focuses on two categories of chemicals: those that cause asthma, and those that cause reproductive harm like birth defects. We focus on these because they affect women and children, who are most likely to be using the cleaning products, and home when they are being used.

Some of the known health effects of chemicals in common cleaning products are: -- several are known to cause occupational asthma in cleaning workers. -- animal studies have shown reproductive harm: testicular damage, reduced fertility, maternal toxicity, early embryonic death, and birth defects.

So where are we with the science? Obviously we can't say "this bottle of cleaning fluid caused this child to get asthma." What we do know is that several studies have linked exposure to these chemicals with asthma in cleaning workers -- the people who are exposed to them every day. We do know that janitorial workers have twice the rate of asthma as other workers.

With the reproductive toxins, obviously it would be unethical to expose a pregnant woman to these products and then see if it hurts her baby. So instead we rely on animal studies. (Some people, of course, also find animal studies unethical.)

We do know that several of these chemicals get absorbed through the skin, and by breathing them. As previously mentioned, we find chemicals of concern in our blood, urine, breastmilk and umbilical cord blood.

So what do we do in this situation? The evidence is piling up, but we can't say for sure that any single product is harming any one of us.

Well, what would you do if something was potentially harming your child? You'd take it away!

In the face of scientific uncertainty, which is where we are now, how do you take action? That part is simple: you take precaution. You think "better safe than sorry." You think "an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure." These are time-tested ideas for a reason: they're smart, and they keep us safe.

IV. What can we do at home?

First, it's important to think precaution and prevention. You may have someone in your household questioning whether you need to make this switch. Some of these products might cost more than the ones you're using now -- and some cost less.

I think the most compelling argument for taking action, right now, is something called cumulative impacts.

Cumulative impacts describes the situation that each one of us is in right now when it comes to toxic chemicals: sure, maybe one squirt of air freshener won't hurt you. Maybe breathing those scrubbing bubbles a few times won't hurt you. But what happens when you start to add these things up?

What happens when you're surrounded by dusting spray and scented laundry soap and squirt-on window cleaner and plug-in air fresheners and car exhaust and diesel emissions and mercury from power plants and chemicals in toys and makeup and pesticides in food?

Every single day of your life? We're all living in a grand experiment without our consent: we have no idea what all these chemicals do in combination with each other. And that's why it's so important to take precautionary action and remove any exposures that you can.

Five simple steps to a greener home

1.) Educate yourself. Learn enough to make good choices. A non-profit organization called Women's Voices for the Earth, at, has a lengthy report on cleaning products that is available for free downloading. The green cleaning company Seventh Generation has a comprehensive web site at that lists the ingredients in their products, has a "guide to a toxin-free home" and has coupons.

2.) Use fewer products, and less of them. I have a little secret for you that the cleaning product companies don't want you to know: you do not need a different product for every room in your house! Soap and water work for lots of things -- you can get a big bottle of castile soap that will last you for months. Baking soda and vinegar, which cost pennies per use, have many uses.

Question whether you need the products you're using -- maybe instead of spraying an air freshener, you could simmer a cinnamon stick on the stove (this is what realtors do when they want to sell a home, it makes the house smell so good!) Put half a lemon in your disposal. Open your windows when you clean to let the bad air out and the good air in.

3.) Make your own cleaners. These are several great web resources with recipes for inexpensive, effective cleaners. Have a green cleaning party! Womens' Voices for the Earth has a fun "green cleaning party kit" that you can download form their website, They'll send you an educational DVD, fact sheets, and supplies you need to invite your friends over and have fun getting healthy.

4.) Buy good brands. These are several great companies out there right now who are making safe, healthy products for the home, and working hard to push this market. Only buy products that list their ingredients. Don't buy anything that says "caution" or "warning" or "use in a well-ventilated room." Support the companies who are doing the right thing and creating this market, such as Seventh Generation, Method, and other brands you'll find at Whole Foods, Trader Joe's, and natural food shops.

But there is a corollary to this: watch out for greenwashing, the practice whereby companies try to make themselves look good by claiming to be healthy, but actually are not. Words on the label like natural, green, eco, and even organic are not regulated in this market. Think about which companies you want to support.

5.) Perhaps most important, join together and speak up: join a non- profit organization such as Women's Voices for the Earth, the Science and Environmental Health Network (, or the Center for Environmental Health ( Continuing to use these same old dangerous chemicals are political and economic decisions, and both respond to consumers when we join our voices together.

Just as an example of recent results of consumer advocacy, Wal-Mart is pulling Bisphenol-A baby bottles form their shelves, and Target is phasing out PVC plastic. This is a direct result of great advocacy by non-profit organizations and the members who support them.

You can do some easy advocacy from home too: call the 800 number on the back of your cleaning products. Ask the manufacturers to list all of the ingredients on the product label, and to remove chemicals of concern from their products. Companies are thinking about doing this, but they need to hear from their customers to push them over the edge. You can also sign an online petition and leave comments at (click on "Take Action on Toxics").

This is a great time to get involved in issues of household environmental health. Consumers are learning more and demanding more from the marketplace, and manufacturers hear this and want a piece of that market. The market is shifting to healthier products, and it is because of each of us asking for products that don't harm our children or our planet. It's the perfect time to be gorgeously green.

Katie Silberman is Associate Director, Science and Environmental Health Network, Contact This piece is adapted from a presentation to the Jewish Environmental Initiative, St. Louis, MO, May 15, 2008. The author wishes to thank Alexandra Gorman Scranton of Women's Voices for the Earth for her research assistance.

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