September 09, 2010

New York to force household cleaner giants to reveal chemical ingredients

Source: NYSUT Communications

New York state will begin to enforce legislation requiring household cleaning companies to reveal the chemical ingredients in their products and any health risks they pose.

The move was triggered by public health and environmental advocates, who urged the state's Department of Environmental Conservation to enforce disclosure requirements from the 33-year-old law. Independent studies show a link between many chemicals commonly found in cleaning products and health effects ranging from nerve damage to hormone disruption. With growing concern about the potential hazards of chemicals in these products, advocates pressed the state to uphold consumers' right to know.

Congress is also considering legislation to overhaul U.S. chemicals policy. Internationally, companies are preparing to comply with a similar European law (known as REACH) already taking effect.

"This is a long-overdue protection that consumers need and deserve," said Kathleen Donahue, vice president for New York State United Teachers, which helped advocate for the action with a letter of support. "Parents should know what is in the products they use. Children are affected by these chemicals."

Donahue said the enforcement will tie in well with a four-year-old law requiring "green" cleaning products to be used in all New York schools. NYSUT was instrumental in advocating for passage of that "Green Cleaning" bill that requires all schools to use environmentally sensitive cleaning and maintenance products.

With the New York law already in place to protect children at schools from the toxic chemicals in cleaning products, the enforcement of this disclosure requirement will give parents the opportunity to make their homes as safe as schools, said Grassroots Environmental Education Executive Director Patti Wood.

Last year, on behalf of Women's Voices for the Earth, Environmental Advocates of New York, New York Public Interest Research Group, Riverkeeper, Sierra Club and American Lung Association in New York, the non-profit law firm Earthjustice sued household cleaning giants Procter & Gamble, Colgate-Palmolive, Arm & Hammer parent company Church and Dwight, and Lysol-maker Reckitt-Benckiser for failing to submit required semiannual ingredient reports.

A judge dismissed the lawsuit last month without ruling on the merits of the groups' claims. But during the court case, the companies said they would file disclosure reports if asked to do so by the State.

DEC Commissioner Pete Grannis has now made that request by announcing the agency's new policy to stakeholders on Sept. 8.

A stakeholders meeting will be held Oct. 6 to bring together DEC officials, public health and environmental groups, and cleaning product companies to begin a process for specifying mutually acceptable content, format and logistics for disclosure of chemicals in the products.

By making the companies come clean about what is in their products, New York state is initiating an age of greater transparency and empowering people to protect themselves and their families, said Earthjustice Managing Attorney Deborah Goldberg.

Cleaning product manufacturers are taking notice of the changing climate toward toxics in products. In response to a letter sent by the groups involved in the court case, several companies, including the California-based Sunshine Makers, Inc. (manufacturers of Simple Green products), filed with the State for the first time. And three weeks after the disclosure lawsuit was filed, household cleaner manufacturing giant SC Johnson said it would begin disclosing the chemical ingredients on product labels.

"We commend the DEC for requiring manufacturers to 'come clean' about the ingredients in their products," said Laura Haight, senior environmental associate with NYPIRG.

Studies show links between chemicals in common household cleaners and respiratory irritation, asthma and allergies. Occupational exposures to some ethylene glycol ethers, often used as solvents in cleaning products, are associated with red blood cell damage, reproductive system damage and birth defects. Some solvents in cleaning products are also toxic to the nervous system.

For a copy of the DEC notice, visit www.earthjustice.org/documents/letter/pdf/new-york-state-household-cleaner-announcement (PDF).