Are your cleaning products toxic?

jbcurio / Free Photos

When you look at the label on your jar of peanut butter or bag of chips, you will see all of the ingredients in the jar or bag listed. (You might not be able to tell if they used GMO corn in those corn chips, but you will see corn listed.)  You see it is mandatory to show all of the ingredients on labels in all food, cosmetics and drugs sold in the U.S.  That way,  you can choose to nix the face cream that is loaded with parabens and pass on the hydrogenated oil filled crackers.

Not so for the products you use everyday to clean your dishes, clothing, sheets and showers.

There are no requirements to label ingredients in cleaners.

Hence,  only 7 percent of companies adequately disclose the ingredients of their products and it is common to list just a few of the ingredients or describe them in vague terms such as “surfactant” and “solvent.” Well that “solvent”  might just be a known carcinogen. Once again, the Environmental Working Group has come to the rescue of the modern consumer.  They recently  created the first online guide that rates more than 2,000 household cleaners with grades A through F for safety of ingredients and disclosure of contents.

“Keeping your home clean shouldn’t put you and your family at risk, and with EWG’s new online guide you won’t have to,” EWG senior scientist Rebecca Sutton, Ph.D, said. “Quite a few cleaning products that line store shelves are packed with toxic chemicals that can wreak havoc with your health, including many that harm the lungs. The good news is, there are plenty of cleaning products that will get the job done without exposing you to hazardous substances.”

EWG’s staff scientists spent 14 months researching and compiling the guide.  They found that even some “green” brands do not disclose ingredients adequately.

I decided to check the cleaners I use to see how well they fared. I do most of my cleaning with baking soda and vinegar (this inexpensive, simple disinfecting spray works better than most commercial cleaners)  but I do buy dishwasher detergent, dishwashing soap and laundry detergent.  I tend to buy whatever “green” brand is on sale..in fact  there was a great sale on Seventh Generation Automatic Dishwashing Gel the other day so I  just bought five bottles.  Well, according to the EWG guide, those five bottles got a big fat F!  The funny thing is that Seventh Generation Automatic Dishwashing Powder, Free and Clear got an A.  Looks like I will be doing an exchange!   Obviously it is important to look at the specific products that you are using and not just the brand.  So how did my other cleaners do?  The Planet Ultra Dishwashing Liquid  got a “D” and the Trader Joe’s laundry detergent I have been using received an “F”!                                        Time for some changes.

According to a post on the EWG site, the day after their guide came out they were contacted by many of the manufacturers of poorly rated products.The manufacturers said they had added new ingredient information to their product labels, changed the ingredients – or both.  They were eager to give the EWG their updated information and, hopefully, get a better score on their products.   (Speaks to the power of information and why some companies fight so hard to avoid transparency.)  Weak disclosure or potentially harmful ingredients were two of the big reasons why many well known product lines ended up with low grades.  EWG responded:

We’re happy to get the new information and will use it to update the Guide on a regular basis, but for the most part, the original scores will stay.

Why?

Unlike a tomato or a banana, cleaning products don’t go bad in a hurry. If you’re like most consumers, you probably have bottles of window or floor cleaner under your sink or in your cleaning closet that have been there for months – if not years. In stores, too, it can take a long time before old inventory sells out and gets replaced with the “new, improved” versions.

I took a look at the Seventh Generation website to see if they had anything to say about the guide, and found that they did. While they were very supportive of the EWG and the guide, they took exception with some of their findings.  EWG considered ingredients listed as “essentials oils” or “preservatives” as “incomplete disclosure” but Seventh Generation said that the exact ingredients were also listed. They had differing opinions on other ingredients such as methylisothiazolinone with Seventh Generation explaining, “There’s also the sticky wicket of methylisothiazolinone, a synthetic preservative used to maintain freshness in our plant-based products. (Natural microbes love to eat our natural plant-based ingredients!) EWG gives this ingredient a D, though it meets our rigorous safety and environmental standards.”    In any case the end result is that Seventh Generation promised to continue improving their products and hope to eventually get an “A” rating on all of them.

The guide, it seems, is already having a positive influence.  Consumers can better understand what might be in the cleaners they buy and manufacturers are feeling the pressure to improve the transparency of their products.

So take a look at what is in your cupboard. See how your favorite products fare.  Think about whether you really need them at all.  Check EWG for their recommended products. Then vote with your pocketbook next time you buy a cleaner. Support a company that is making safe products.

…  and don’t forget to vote on the ballot for the other “information to the people” initiative  California Proposition 37, Mandatory Labeling of Genetically Engineered Food.

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Occupy Our Food Supply

Today an alliance of food justice groups, environmental organizations and the Occupy movement are calling for a Global Day of Action to Occupy Our Food Supply.  It is a call to resist corporate takeover of our food supply and to create and support a sustainable healthy food system for all.  A recent op-ed piece  by Willie Nelson and Anne Lappe highlights the importance of this issue:

 Our food is under threat. It is felt by every family farmer who has lost their land and livelihood, every parent who can’t find affordable or healthy ingredients in their neighborhood, every person worried about food borne illnesses thanks to lobbyist-weakened food safety laws, every farm worker who faces toxic pesticides in the fields as part of a day’s work.

When our food is at risk we are all at risk.

Over the last thirty years, we have witnessed a massive consolidation of our food system. Never have so few corporations been responsible for more of our food chain. Of the 40,000 food items in a typical U.S. grocery store, more than half are now brought to us by just 10 corporations. Today, three companies process more than 70 percent of all U.S. beef, Tyson, Cargill and JBS. More than 90 percent of soybean seeds and 80 percent of corn seeds used in the United States are sold by just one companyMonsanto. Four companies are responsible for up to 90 percent of the global trade in grain. And one in four food dollars is spent at Walmart.

What does this matter for those of us who eat? Corporate control of our food system has led to the loss of millions of family farmers, the destruction of soil fertility, the pollution of our water, and health epidemics including type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and even certain forms of cancer. More and more, the choices that determine the food on our shelves are made by corporations concerned less with protecting our health, our environment, or our jobs than with profit margins and executive bonuses.

This consolidation also fuels the influence of concentrated economic power in politics: Last year alone, the biggest food companies spent tens of millions lobbying on Capitol Hill with more than $37 million used in the fight against junk food marketing guidelines for kids.

 The wellbeing of much of our planet is now at the mercy of companies like Monsanto which created  DDT, Agent Orange, Roundup, Bovine Growth Hormone, and PCB’s, just to name a few.  Not very reassuring!   We must take back control. It is going to take more than buying organic and going vegetarian. In his excellent piece “Big Food Must Go”  Christopher D. Cook, author of Diet for a Dead Planet: Big Business and the Coming Food Crisis,  writes “to truly ‘occupy the food system’ we will need nothing less than a fundamental restructuring of the economics and policies that currently enable our corporate food system.”  This would include “a radical overhaul….of how our tax dollars are spent on food”  and reforming anti-trust laws “so these companies can’t control entire food and seed markets.” So let’s get going. The time is now. This IS urgent.

TAKE ACTION

  • GO to the Occupy our Food site facilitated by the Rainforest Action Network and see the list of events and actions that they are promoting including Occupying Cargill
  • GET POLITICAL  Contact your  representatives. Here is a list of them. Let them know that this is a crucial issue and that you expect them to do everything they can to create policies to support and promote a healthy and sustainable food system. Call back frequently!
  • Use your purchasing power. Stay informed and only buy products from companies with sustainable practices. Boycott huge agribusiness.
  • Support your local farmers. Buy your food from the farmers market and/or join a CSA. Here in Santa Barbara we are very lucky  to have many wonderful organic farmers growing a huge variety of food. Enjoy It!
  • Plant organic edibles. Support biodiversity and buy and grow heirlooms seeds. Island Seed and Feed is a great resource. Save and Share your Seeds.
  • Look into the Occupy Movement.  Read some of their declarations.   As Eric Holt- Gomez, Executive Director, Food First/Institute for Food and Development Policy, writes recently in the Huffington Post,  “The food justice movement has no strategy to address the inter-institutional (i.e. structural) ways that inequity is produced in the food system. By openly protesting the excesses of capitalism, Occupy does address this structure. This is why the convergence of Occupy and the food justice movement is so potentially powerful — and why it is feared.”

There is a power in working together. We can take back our health.  In the words of Santa Barbara beloved farmer and educator Michael Ableman, “We need to focus on what we are for as much as what we are against; occupying our land, our soils with life and fertility, our communities with good food. We need to work to rebuild the real economy, the one based on seeds and sunlight and individuals and communities growing together.”

Photo found here

Heal the Ocean, and yourself

Heal the Ocean, is an incredible non-profit based here in Santa Barbara whose mission is to end ocean pollution. They have a very hands on approach, actually  funding their own scientific studies to find the sources of pollution and commissioning engineering studies and environmental assessments to determine the costs of clean up.  After five years of research, they  recently released the California Ocean Wastewater Discharge Report and Inventory. The report, which encompasses all the wastewater treatment facilities that discharge into the Pacific along the California coast, provides an unprecedented overview of the state of our wastewater system. When the study was started, the issue of bacteria in the water was the primary focus but as time went on, the problem of chemical pollutants took on an increased significance.  Apparently our wastewater treatment plants are not equipped to treat these pollutants, termed Contaminants of Emerging Concern (CEC’s).  As  more research was conducted, it became apparent that the source of many of these CEC’s was personal care products. Turns out that many products we use everyday,  (think  shampoo, lotions, toothpaste,  sunscreens, antibacterial soap, fabric, canned goods,  etc. ) are loaded with chemicals, and they are not only poisoning the ocean, but may be very harmful to us.  Katherine Engel, a research associate  with Heal the Ocean, has written an excellent paper  “Bad for the Ocean,  Bad for You” which details many of these  CEC’s and provides tips on how to avoid them. This is a must read as is  her companion essay, Personal Care Products- A Research Journey. The ingredients in cosmetics and personal care products are not regulated in any meaningful way;  many of them include known toxins such as lead which has been found in many brands of lipstick.  Engel writes “consumers have NO idea they are bathing in toxins, smearing toxins on themselves, rubbing toxins into their hair,”  and when we are done with this toxic bath, the CEC’s “go down the drain from your house to a wastewater treatment plant, where for the most part they bypass the current treatment system and are discharged straight into the ocean.”  These chemicals also pose a threat to our drinking water . The Safe Drinking Water Act regulates 91 contaminants but it is estimated that there are over 60,000 chemicals used in the US.  While the wastewater treatment plants are not currently  treating these chemicals, it is possible that with higher levels of processing they might be able to effectively remove these contaminants. This would require an increase in funding, most likely through rate hikes on the sewer portion of our water bills.  I think that if people understood the problem they would support this. How much is safe, clean water  worth to you?   According to Hillary Hauser, the Executive Director of Heal the Ocean, ” A wastewater treatment plant is the most important environmental tool we have for the ocean, period.  And we have to help them.”   Heal the Ocean will be  hitting the road with their groundbreaking reports  and “will be talking to state water agencies, politicians, experts and regulators.”  Let’s help support them.  Obviously, if we can keep these chemicals out of the system to begin with we will helping to solve the problem and likely improving our health as well. These chemicals are ubiquitous in many of the products we buy, but they are not essential and often there are better alternatives available.

ACTIONS TO TAKE

what's in your shampoo?

 

  • READ THE LABELS of the products you have been buying and if they are loaded with these CEC’s write to the company to see if they can change their formulas. If not, find a better replacement.
  • SUPPORT THE WORK OF HEAL THE OCEAN
  • BUY WISELY Know what is in the products you buy and what went into making them. Support companies who are committed to the most  sustainable practices
  • VOICE YOUR CONCERN Let your representatives know that you care  about proper funding for our sewer systems

A big part of living a green lifestyle is being a conscious consumer.  Here is another chance to get it right.