Lawsuit Seeks Disclosure of Chemicals in Name-Brand Cleaners

NEW YORK, New York, February 20, 2009 (ENS) – A coalition of state and national groups is dragging the makers of some of the nation’s best known brands of cleaners into a New York court, seeking disclosure of the chemical ingredients in their products and the health risks they pose.

Filed in State Supreme Court, this first case of its kind could have national implications. Independent studies into chemicals contained in cleaning products have found health effects ranging from asthma and allergies to hormone disruption.

But ingredient disclosure requirements are virtually non-existent in the United States – with one exception.

A forgotten New York state law requires household and commercial cleaner companies selling their products in New York to file semi-annual reports with the state listing the chemicals contained in their products and describing any company research on these chemicals’ health and environmental effects. But since the 1976 law was passed, companies have not filed a single report.

In the fall of 2008, environmental and public health advocates sent letters to more than a dozen companies asking them to comply with the law.

The companies targeted in the lawsuit filed Tuesday each ignored or refused this request. The defendant companies include Procter & Gamble, Colgate-Palmolive, Church and Dwight, and Reckitt-Benckiser.

“As the evidence showing the risks posed by chemicals in household cleaners continues to mount, people deserve to know whether the products they use to wash their dishes, launder their clothes, and clean their homes could be harmful,” said Earthjustice attorney Keri Powell, who is representing the plaintiff groups.

Several companies, including the California-based Sunshine Makers, Inc., which manufactures Simple Green products, complied with the request, filing reports with the State of New York for the first time.

“Sunlight is the best disinfectant, as they say. It’s time to dust off this important law and take the first step in giving consumers the information they need to protect themselves and their families,” said Powell.

The nonprofit public interest law firm Earthjustice is filing the lawsuit 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.

“It’s outrageous that there are hidden ingredients in our cleaning products that may cause serious reproductive problems,” says Tracy Lakatua, executive director of Women’s Voices for the Earth.

“In our 2007 report ‘Household Hazards’ we identified hundreds of cleaning products containing ingredients linked to infertility, birth defects and asthma. Consumers deserve to know if these kinds of chemicals are in their products so they can make healthy choices for themselves and their families,” Lakutua said.

Household cleaners (Photo by Diana von Oertzen)

Cleaning chemicals can have severe impacts on respiratory health. Ethanolamines, chemicals used as surfactants in many cleaning products, have been shown to trigger asthma. And mixing common chemicals ammonia and chlorine creates toxic gases called chloramines causing shortness of breath, chest pain, wheezing, nausea, watery eyes, irritation and pneumonia and fluid in the lungs.

“The public is well aware of the dangerous health effects of outdoor air pollution, however inside our homes, air pollution levels can be two to five times higher than outdoors,” said Michael Seilback, vice president, public policy and communications for the American Lung Association in New York. “The public has a right to know whether the cleaning products they use in their homes contain harmful ingredients which could cause severe respiratory problems and trigger asthma attacks.”

The plaintiffs point to independent research that has documented “troubling hormone-disrupting qualities” of alkylphenol ethoxylates found in detergents, disinfectants, stain removers, and floor cleaners.

Some breakdown products of these manmade chemicals can mimic the hormone estrogen and when released into the environment are toxic to aquatic wildlife, the plaintiffs claim.

In laboratory studies, they cause breast cancer cells to proliferate, alter cells in the placenta, and cause reproductive abnormalities. The plaintiff groups say these studies raise concerns about whether alkylphenol ethoxylates may increase the risk of breast cancer, miscarriages, and reproductive damage in humans.

But the Alkylphenols and Ethoxylates Research Council, an industry group, argues in its June 2007 “Bulletin” that the assertion, made by the Sierra Club and other groups in a petition to the U.S. EPA, that numerous studies found endocrine disruptive effects well below the federal water quality criteria of 6.6 µg/L, is “misinformed and misleading.”

The surfectant nonylphenol has “weak estrogenic activity,” the council says, and “is ten thousand to one million times less potent than the natural estrogen found in human waste.”

Moreover, the council contends, “the nonylphenol ethoxylates used in commercial products are not estrogenic. This is an important distinction because these are the compounds (the ethoxylates) that are used in the workplace.”

Because many cleaning chemicals survive the sewage system and are released into streams, the plaintiff groups argue, there is growing concern that such chemicals pose a threat to fish and other aquatic wildlife, causing, among other things, the “feminization” of male fish.

“Manufacturers of household cleaning products have a responsibility to inform consumers and state regulators about chemicals in their products that may endanger human health or the environment,” said Laura Haight, senior environmental associate with New York Public Interest Research Group. “This is not only common sense; here in New York, it’s the law.”

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