Shopping Green

By Teresa McUsic    

Household cleaners, which have little government oversight regarding their ingredients, have come under new scrutiny by the Environmental Working Group, a Washington D.C. based environmental advocacy organization.
This month, the EWG published the first online guide that rates more than 2,000 common cleaners for safety and disclosure of ingredients, available for no cost at The guide gives grades of A through F, with products with weak disclosure or potentially harmful ingredients getting lower grades.  Most products on the list did not fare well, receiving a D or F grade.

“Only about 7 percent of the products we looked at had adequate disclosure,” said Rebecca Sutton, PhD, senior scientist for EWG. “A lot of brands could improve their grades if they were honest about their products.”   For example, under laundry detergent just 42 products scored an A or B, or 7 percent of all 630 products tested. Martha Stewart Clean Laundry Detergent, which received the letter grade A by EWG, can only be found online in this part of the country at sites like  Another detergent with an A grade, 7th Generation Free and Clear, is more readily available at local Kroger, Target, Tom Thumb and Wal-Mart.   

Some of the biggest manufacturers in household products—Protector and Gamble, Clorox and SC Johnson—do not fully disclose their ingredients, but neither do many companies known for their green label, Sutton said.  Among the best were products from Simple Green, Martha Stewart, Green Shield, Whole Foods Market, 7th Generation and Arm & Hammer.   

Immediately upon publishing the guide, EWG starting hearing from companies, particularly from the green community, Sutton said. The manufacturers said they had added new ingredient information to their product labels and/or changed the ingredients and some hoped to get a better score, she said. (There is a new television ad by S.C. Johnson that they would be listing all of their ingredients.)

EWG will update the guide, but will keep the original scores, Sutton said, partially because cleaning products usually stay in a home or at the store for months, if not years.
  For example, Whole Foods Market announced last year that all cleaning products sold in its stores would be rated on safety and environmental criteria and would need detailed ingredient labels by last April. In May, the company said that 90 percent of products being sold in its stores now met the company’s ingredient requirements, but it would take six months before all of them had full ingredient labels.

Of the ingredients that were listed in some household cleaning products, EWG found many of them to be toxic substances linked to short- and long-term health problems, including asthma, allergic reactions and cancer.
“Keeping your home clean shouldn’t put you and your family at risk, and with EWG’s new online guide you won’t have to,” Sutton said. “Quite a few cleaning products that line store shelves are packed with toxic chemicals that can wreak havoc with your health, including many that harm the lungs. The good news is, there are plenty of cleaning products that will get the job done without exposing you to hazardous substances.”

To uncover what is in common household cleaners, EWG’s staff scientists spent 14 months scouring product labels and digging through company websites and technical documents. EWG staff reviewed each ingredient against 15 U.S. and international toxicity databases and numerous scientific and medical journals.

Key findings:
• About half of the cleaning products contain ingredients known to harm the lungs. About 22 percent contain chemicals reported to cause asthma to develop.
• Formaldehyde, a known human carcinogen, is sometimes used as a preservative or may be released by other preservatives in cleaning products. It may form when terpenes, found in citrus and pine oil cleaners and in some essential oils used as scents, react with ozone in the air.
• The chemical 1,4-dioxane, a suspected human carcinogen, is a common contaminant of widely-used detergent chemicals.
• Chloroform, a suspected human carcinogen, sometimes escapes in fumes released by products containing chlorine bleach.
• Quaternary ammonium compounds (“quats”) like benzalkonium chloride, found in antibacterial spray cleaners and fabric softeners, can cause asthma.
• Sodium borate, also known as borax, and boric acid are added to many products as cleaning agents, enzyme stabilizers or for other functions. They can disrupt the hormone system.
    EWG recommends avoiding a few types of products altogether, including:
• Air fresheners. They contain secret fragrance mixtures that can trigger allergies and asthma. Open windows or use fans.
• Antibacterial products, which can spur development of drug-resistant superbugs.
• Fabric softener and dryer sheets, which can cause allergies or asthma and irritate the lungs. Instead, try a little vinegar in the rinse cycle.
• Drain and oven cleaners can burn eyes and skin. Use a drain snake or plunger in drains. Try a do-it-yourself paste of baking soda and water in the oven.

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Teresa McUsic is an Arlington-based writer focused on consumer, environmental and health issues for a number of local and national publications. Her column, The Savvy Consumer, appears in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. She can be reached at