Sorry to disturb if you’re still reeling from the news that America’s favorite black market laundry detergent, Tide, was recently found to contain alarmingly high levels of the carcinogenic solvent 1,4-dioxane (not too shockingly, the brass at Procter & Gamble claim it's nothing to worry about and currently have no plans to reformulate), but consumer watchdog organization Environmental Working Group (EWG) has just released a veritable rogues' gallery of the most noxious, nasty household cleaners on the market, and it's certainly worth a look.
Best known for Skin Deep, a database detailing the good, the bad, and the ugly of ingredients found in personal care products and cosmetics, EWG is gearing up to release a cleaning product-centric counterpart this fall in which more than 2,000 individual products from 200 brands are scrutinized via independent scientific analysis. The goal, like Skin Deep, isn’t to scare the pants off of people (although this can be a side effect) but to help (sometimes oblivious) consumers make healthier and more environmentally conscious purchasing decisions. I’ve spent a fair amount of time on Skin Deep in the past and it’s an excellent, eye-opening resource.
Anyways, as a sort of unsettling tease before the EWG Cleaners Database is officially published, EWG has released the Cleaners Hall of Shame. Basically, it’s a “worst of” list that spotlights the ickiest products to appear in the forthcoming cleaners database.
The inductees of the Cleaners Hall of Shame are divided into several categories such as “High-Hazard Ingredients,” “Fatal if Inhaled” and “Mystery Mixtures.” While the usual suspects are represented (oven and toilet cleaners, drain openers, air fresheners, etc.) there are some surprises on the list, particularly in the first category titled “Greenwashing.” Three products appear in this area: Citra-Solv Cleaner and Degreaser, Simple Green Concentrated All-Purpose Cleaner, and Whink Rust Stain Remover. The first product contains d-limonene, a citrus oil-derived solvent that can seriously compromise indoor air quality when combined with trace levels of ozone air pollution; the second product contains 2-butoxyethanol, a red blood cell-damaging, eye-irritating solvent; the third product warns: “may be fatal or cause permanent damage” and "causes severe burns which may not be immediately painful or visible." The moral of the story? EWG explains that “cleaners labeled ‘safe,’ ‘non-toxic’ and ‘green’ can contain hazardous ingredients. There should be a law against bogus claims, but there isn't.”
Another alarming category in the Cleaners Hall of Shame is “Banned Abroad” where somewhat ubiquitous products with key ingredients that have gotten them banned outside of the U.S. (in the EU, specifically) are spotlighted. They include Mop & Glo Multi-Surface Floor Cleaner (methoxydiglycol), Scrubbing Bubbles – Antibacterial Bathroom Cleaner and Extend-A-Clean Mega Shower Foamer (butoxydiglycol), Spic & Span Multi-Surface Floor Cleaner (nonylphenol ethoxylate), and others. And this is wild/wildly disturbing: Comet Cleanser Powder was found to emit more than 146 hazardous chemicals, most of them — formaldehyde, benzene, chloroform, and toluene included — are not listed on the product labeling.
Click here to check out the Cleaners Hall of Shame in its entirety. Is there a product included on the list that you use frequently at home? Will you be using it for much longer or do you think you'll be giving it the old heave-ho? And to be clear, a spritz of CVS brand oven cleaner or Spot Shot Carpet Remover won't burn a hole in your floor a la "The China Syndrome" or cause your cocker spaniel to spontaneously combust into flames from across the room. They aren't outright dangerous. As noted by EWG, the actual health risks of using these products "will depend on the level of exposure, individual susceptibility, and conditions of use or misuse."
And while we’re on the topic of cleaning product heave-ho'ing, take a gander at “The spring purge,” a special series from 2010 in which I tackled a host of purge-worthy, environmentally dubious household staples.