Are Green Cleaners Safe? New Data May Surprise You

EWG's scientists looked at 2,000 cleaners over a one-year period and foundhave ingredients known to harm our lungs.
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Typically, I clean my house with a homemade arsenal of cleaners concocted from olive oil, baking soda and vinegar. To my kids, vinegar smells clean. And that's a good thing, because grandmother-approved cleaners like vinegar and these other household staples don't contribute to indoor air pollution, but they still leave your house sparkling. (And they save you money: A $10 investment can clean your house for months -- even a year!)

But sometimes, I get lazy and grab a cleaner marked "green" or "natural," trusting the brands that I'm familiar with because I knew that current regulations don't require manufacturers to list exactly what ingredients are in household cleaners.

And that's why last week's release of the Environmental Working Group's Guide to Healthy Cleaning was such a surprise. EWG's scientists looked at 2,000 cleaners over a one-year period and found half have ingredients known to harm our lungs. According to the organization's president, Ken Cook, who wrote about the process on Enviroblog, they graded products based on the following criteria:

  • Hazardous ingredients that pose threats to human health
  • Little or no specific ingredient information on the label
  • Contains ingredients restricted in some states and the European Union
  • Products that release volatile chemicals

The guide is poised to do for household cleaners what EWG's Skin Deep Cosmetics Database did for the personal care industry in 2004. Skin Deep provides consumers with a searchable database to help them make informed decisions about what they put on their bodies. In the case of sunscreen, for example, Skin Deep's annual updates really changed the industry for the better: In 2010, EWG approved only one in 12 sunscreens because of health concerns associated with their formulations; in 2012 they approved one in four. This type of market shift really proves that informed consumers can change manufacturing.

But I digress. What was surprising to me -- and to a lot of other people I know -- were some of the products that received poor ratings on the Cleaners Database. One of my favorites, Earth Friendly Parsley Surface Cleaner, got a "D" because they didn't disclose their surfactants and because there's no data on the parsley extract that makes up their signature scent. Babyganics and Bi-O-Kleen Industries also got dinged because they don't share formulations on their labels.

Cook contends that manufacturers can up their ratings by disclosing ingredients to EWG -- and the public. "Since we released our guide ... manufacturers have been coming forward to offer to make public better ingredient information," he wrote in a recent blog post. "We welcome their calls. That's good business and good for consumers. We're already working with the cleaning industry to update scores, based on information coming to us, and the public, as manufacturers compete to offer demonstrably safer, greener products."

So the Cleaners Database is a work in progress. And I believe it will change the industry, in the long run. But in the mean time, I'll stick with my vinegar, thank you very much.

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