The dirty truth about “green” products

This month I have a short feature in Redbook about managing and preventing indoor air pollution. It might not be the most eloquent article I’ve ever written, but in all honesty, I am more excited about this piece than I am about most of my others, because it is an article that I know could really and truly help people. If some of the suggestions end up reducing a family’s exposures to toxic chemicals, then I am one happy lady.

While reporting the piece, I learned something that really shocked me: so-called “green” or “natural” household cleaners aren’t any less toxic than regular ones—and in fact, are sometimes more so. In a study in-press in Environmental Impact Assessment Review, Anne Steinemann, a civil and environmental engineer at the University of Washington, and her colleagues analyzed the chemicals emitted from 25 fragranced consumer products—things like laundry products, cleaning supplies, personal care products and air fresheners. More than half were the bestselling brands in their category, and 11 of them made green claims on their labels or Material Safety Data Sheets using words like “organic,” “non-toxic” or “natural.” Steinemann found that the 25 products each released an average of 17 volatile organic compounds (VOCs), and that every single product released at least one chemical classified as “toxic” or “hazardous” under U.S. Federal Laws. The green products didn’t fare any better—in fact, they seemed to be worse: each of the 11 emitted at least two VOCs that have been classified as toxic or hazardous, and four of them released at least one known carcinogen.

Amazing, isn’t it? You think you’re being smart buying “all-natural” (and, ahem, expensive) kitchen and bathroom cleaners, only to learn that the products might actually be nastier than the run-of-the-mill brands. The core of the problem is that there are no laws regulating green marketing, so a company can say its product is all-natural or non-toxic without having to prove anything or even disclose its ingredients on the bottle. A recipe for disaster—quite literally.

So what can you do? Luckily, there are ways to sort the good from the bad. The GoodGuide, a database compiled by UC-Berkeley professor of environmental and labor policy Dara O’Rourke, rates consumer products like cleaners, toys, food, and personal care products according to their potential health and environmental impacts, so that’s a good place to start. Steinemann points out, though, that the guide isn’t flawless in that it sometimes glosses over potentially dangerous compounds. Another option is to use simple homemade cleaners, like baking soda and vinegar and lemon juice, which can actually do a pretty good job. Finally, if you’re dead-set on using the brand name stuff, you can limit your exposure by spraying the products on sponges or rags rather than directly on hard surfaces (you’ll inhale less of it), and by ventilating the room as you clean. For still more suggestions—and helpful hints about how to prevent exposure to other nasties, like cooking fumes and mold, check out my piece.

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12 Responses to The dirty truth about “green” products

  1. Khalil A. says:

    Fact that there’s no law regulating “green marketing” is a big problem. The green label increases sales but who exactly decides whether a product is green in the first place? And what exactly is green? What are the factors that are taken into consideration? For instance, if a product does no damage to the environment but its production does, surely it can’t be considered green, can it?

    So many questions…

  2. Khalil, I totally agree. It’s a huge problem. From what I understand, companies can simply decide to market their product as “green” on nothing more than a whim.

  3. There are two problems here. #1 is the fact that unsubstantiated claims are allowed to be made at all (something that isn’t the case in Europe) and #2 the very idea that because something is “natural” or “organic” its better.

    The fact of the matter is that many of the most toxic chemicals known to man are organic. Snake venom, poison ivy, botulism, etc. are all “organic” and natural.

    And furthermore, arsenic, cyanide, mercury, radioactive compounds, etc. are all “natural”.

    The idea that “natural” things are inherently better for us is just plain absurd and people should understand that this isn’t true.

    This is even more relevant when it comes to food. Its a plain fact that “organic” foods have a much higher chance of making you sick in the short term, carrying diseases and natural toxins, etc.

    It’s also true, however, that there are many introduced compounds, such as pesticides, which can lead to long-term negative health effects and there are “man-made” (though often technically organic) compounds like toluene that are quite bad.

    But sometimes the “man-made” stuff is actually better for us. The lesson here is that “natural” doesn’t convey any inherent benefit. Each product has to be evaluated independently.

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  8. Julie says:

    This is really helpful as I am pregnant and was told to use only natural household cleaners. The ironic part of this is that I work in a chemistry laboratory.

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  10. Michael says:

    Any person who actually believes themselves to be “green” wouldn’t be using these household cleaners you speak of in the first place.

    The “green” movement has been corporatized. There is virtually nothing that is corporatized that can truly be considered green.

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