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Report Reveals Hidden Chemicals in Common Household Cleaners

Report Reveals Hidden Chemicals in Common Household Cleaners

Women's Voices for the Earth

New independent lab testing on 20 top household cleaning products reveals that top-selling cleaning products and detergents, including Tide Free & Gentle, Pine-Sol and Simple Green All-Purpose Cleaner, contain toxic chemicals not revealed to the consumer. The results show that cleaning products commonly contain hidden chemicals linked to cancer, birth defects and pregnancy complications. The tests were commissioned by the national nonprofit Women’s Voices for the Earth (WVE).

This report, Dirty Secrets: What’s Hiding in Your Cleaning Products?, came the same day Rep. Steve Israel (D-NY) introduced the Cleaning Product Right-to-Know Act—national legislation to change the lax regulations around the disclosure of cleaning product chemical ingredients. Currently, cleaning products are not required to list ingredients on the label, so unlike personal care products and food, there is no way for consumers to know the full list of ingredients in cleaners.

“Our cabinets are full of soaps and cleaners that we assume improve our homes and health. However, new research shines a light on the secret chemicals that might be doing more harm than good. You have a right to know what’s hiding in your household products. That’s why I’m introducing legislation to require full disclosure of the ingredients in everyday cleaning products,” said Rep. Israel.

WVE commissioned tests of 20 cleaning products including laundry detergents, dryer sheets, air fresheners, disinfectant sprays and furniture polishes manufactured by Clorox, Procter & Gamble, Reckitt Benckiser, SC Johnson and Son and Sunshine Makers (Simple Green), at an independent laboratory. The test results revealed:

  • Tide Free & Gentle detergent, a fragrance and dye-free product marketed to people with sensitive skin and mothers of infants, was found to contain 1,4-dioxane, a probable human carcinogen
  • Simple Green Naturals was found to contain phthalates, a chemical associated with reproductive disorders and birth defects
  • Allergens were found in products marketed as “fragrance-free”
  • Hidden reproductive toxins and carcinogens such as phthalates, toluene, 1,4-dioxane and chloroform
  • None of these chemicals were listed on the product label

“We’d like to see consumers have the freedom to make informed choices in the store, to protect their families from toxic chemicals,” said WVE director of science and research and report author Alexandra Scranton. “The system we have now is broken—it’s unnecessary for these risky chemicals to be used in products we use every day. Companies need to phase out these harmful chemicals, and we need a policy that standardizes labeling guidelines for cleaning products, so companies can’t keep these toxic chemicals a secret.”

More than 80,000 chemicals are on the market today, but nearly 20 percent of them are kept secret, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Consumers have been uncertain about the safety of chemicals in cleaners, even in products marketed as “green.” There has been a decline in the sale of cleaning products nationally, environmental and health concerns being one of the contributing factors. Some consumers are favoring homemade cleaners using vinegar and baking soda, for safety and cost reasons.

“I’ve heard complaints from hundreds of people who said that air fresheners and other fragranced household products made them sick—causing headaches, breathing difficulties, seizures, asthma attacks and other health problems,” says Dr. Anne Steinemann, professor of civil and environmental engineering and public affairs at the University of Washington. “This report does a tremendous service by revealing the hazardous chemicals that can be hidden in cleaning products, so that consumers can know to avoid fragrances and other chemicals that are linked to serious health problems.”

WVE’s 2007 report Household Hazards found that Latina women are particularly at risk for overexposure to toxic chemicals through cleaners. Nationally, more than one-third of domestic cleaners are Latina women. “Latino families want to protect their families from toxic chemicals, but that’s really difficult when ingredients are kept secret, and companies like P&G are aggressively marketing to Latino consumers,” says Lorena Garcia, executive director of the Colorado Organization for Latina Opportunity and Reproductive Rights (COLOR). “We will be working to educate Latina women specifically about the hazards and risks associated with using these kinds of products.”

WVE has engaged the five major companies investigated in this report in an effort to encourage full disclosure of chemical ingredients and removal of toxic chemicals in cleaning products. WVE has been one of the lead advocacy groups calling on Congress to strengthen ingredient disclosure requirements for cleaning products. The Cleaning Product Right-to-Know Act of 2011 will require companies to list all of the product ingredients directly on the label and will create a uniform system for labeling.

To download the report, click here.


For the fact sheet with the table of products tested and results, click here.

For more information, click here.

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Women’s Voices for the Earth is a national organization that works to eliminate toxic chemicals that impact women’s health by changing consumer behaviors, corporate practices and government policies. www.womensvoices.org

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In early October, Britain's Prince William teamed up with conservationist David Attenborough to launch the Earthshot Prize, a new award for environmentalist innovation. The Earthshot brands itself the "most prestigious global environment prize in history."

The world-famous wildlife broadcaster and his royal sidekick appear to have played an active role in the prize's inception, and media coverage has focused largely on them as the faces of the campaign.

But the pair are only the frontmen of a much larger movement which has been in development for several years. In addition to a panel of experts who will decide on the winners, the prize's formation took advice from the World Wildlife Fund, Greenpeace and the Jack Ma Foundation.

With more and more global attention on the climate crisis, celebrity endorsement of environmental causes has become more common. But why do environmental causes recruit famous faces for their campaigns? And what difference can it make?

'Count Me In'

"We need celebrities to reach those people who we cannot reach ourselves," says Sarah Marchildon from the United Nations Climate Change secretariat (UNFCCC) in Bonn, Germany.

Marchildon is a proponent of the use of celebrities to raise awareness of environmental causes. In addition to promoting a selection of climate ambassadors who represent the UN on sustainability issues, Marchildon's team has produced videos with well-known narrators from the entertainment world: among them, Morgan Freeman and Mark Ruffalo.

"We choose celebrities who have a lifestyle where they are already talking about these issues," Marchildon explains.

"Sometimes they reach out to us themselves, as David Attenborough did recently. And then they can promote the videos on their own social channels which reach more people than we do — for example, if they have 20 million followers and we have 750,000."

Environmental groups focused on their own domestic markets are also taking this approach. One Germany-based organization that uses celebrities in campaigns is the German Zero NGO. Set up in 2019, it advocates for a climate-neutral Germany by 2035.

German Zero produced a video in March 2020 introducing the campaign with "66 celebrities" that supported the campaign, among them Deutschland 83 actor Jonas Nay and former professional footballer Andre Schürrle. They solicit support as well as financial contributions from viewers.

"Count me in," they say, pointing toward the camera. "You too?"

"We are incredibly grateful for the VIPs in our videos," says German Zero spokeswoman Eva-Maria McCormack.

Assessing Success Is Complex

But quantifying the effectiveness of celebrity endorsement of campaigns is not a straightforward process.

"In order to measure effectiveness, first of all you need to define what is meant by success," says Alegria Olmedo, a researcher at the Zoology Department at the University of Oxford.

Olmedo is the author of a study looking at a range of campaigns concerning pangolin consumption, fronted by local and Western celebrities, in Vietnam and China. But she says her biggest stumbling block was knowing how to measure a campaign's success.

"You need a clear theory of change," explains Olmedo. "Have the celebrities actually helped in achieving the campaign's goals? And how do you quantify these goals? Maybe it is increased donations or higher engagement with a cause."

A popular campaign in China in recent years saw famous chefs Zhao Danian and Shu Yi pledge to abstain from cooking endangered wildlife. While the pledge achieved widespread recognition, both Olmedo and Marchildon say it's difficult to know whether it made any difference to people's actions.

"In life we see a thousand messages every day, and it is very hard to pinpoint whether one campaign has actually made a difference in people's behavior," she explains.

Awareness Is Not Enough

Many campaigns that feature celebrities focus on raising awareness rather than on concrete action — which, for researcher Olmedo, raises a further problem in identifying effectiveness.

"Reach should never be a success outcome," she says. "Many campaigns say they reached a certain number of people on social media. But there has been a lot of research that shows that simply giving people information does not mean they are actually going to remember it or act upon it."

But anecdotal evidence from campaigns may suggest reach can make an active difference.

"Our VIP video is by far the most watched on our social media channels," McCormack from German Zero says. "People respond to it very directly. A lot of volunteers of all ages heard about us through that video."

However, some marketing studies have shown that celebrity endorsement of a cause or product can distract from the issue itself, as people only remember the person, not the content of what they were saying.

Choosing the Right Celebrity

Celebrity choice is also very important. Campaigns that use famous faces are often aiming to appeal to members of the public who do not necessarily follow green issues.

For certain campaigns with clear target audiences, choosing a climate scientist or well-known environmentalist rather than a celebrity could be more appealing — Attenborough is a classic example. For others, images and videos involving cute animals may be more likely to get a message heard than attaching a famous face.

"We choose celebrities who have a lifestyle where they are already talking about these issues," says Marchildon from the UN. "You need figures with credibility."

McCormack cites the example of Katharine Hayhoe, an environmental scientist who is also an evangelical Christian. In the southern United States, Hayhoe has become a celebrity in her own right, appealing to an audience that might not normally be interested in the messages of climate scientists.

But as soon as you get a celebrity involved, campaigns also put themselves at risk of the whims of that celebrity. Prince William and younger members of the royal family have come under fire in recent years for alleged hypocrisy for their backing of environmental campaigns while simultaneously using private jets to fly around the world.

But Does It Really Work?

While environmental campaigns hope that endorsement from well-known figures can boost a campaign, there is little research to back this up.

"The biggest finding [from my study] was that we were unable to produce any evidence that shows that celebrity endorsement of environmental causes makes any difference," says Olmedo.

This will come as a blow to many campaigns that have invested time and effort into relationships with celebrity ambassadors. But for many, the personal message that many celebrities offer in videos like that produced by German Zero and campaigns like the Earthshot Prize are what counts.

The research may not prove this conclusively — but if the public believes a person they respect deeply personally cares about an important issue, they are perhaps more likely to care too.

"I personally believe in the power this can have," says Marchildon. "And if having a celebrity involved can get a single 16-year-old future leader thinking about environmentalist issues — that is enough."

Reposted with permission from DW.

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