CHICAGO - It's spring-cleaning time, and as Americans get ready to scrub down their homes this year they're finding they can choose from an array of new detergent products that claim to be safer to use than those currently under the kitchen sink.
Products marketed as "nontoxic," "natural" or "green" now crowd store shelves, promising to be safer to the people who use them as well as the environment. And more of these products are in the works.
"You're going to see more products in the marketplace this year and in the coming years that meet certain consumers' expectations for being green but also being effective cleaners," said Brian Sansoni, vice president of communication for the Soap and Detergent Association. Sales of "natural" household cleaners and supplies - including bathroom and kitchen cleaners - have grown 26 percent from January 2007 to January 2008, according to SPINS, a market research and consulting firm for the natural-products industry. The new products are driven by consumer demand, as well as companies such as Wal-Mart, Target and Home Depot, as they request safer products from their suppliers, said Clive Davies, chief of the Design for the Environment program of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Joining newer brands, including Method, are established companies such as Clorox. This year, it introduced its Green Works line, including an all-purpose cleaner, a glass and surface cleaner, a toilet bowl cleaner, a concentrated cleaner and a bathroom cleaner. The new Clorox products are made from plant-based ingredients derived from coconuts and lemon oil, and are at least 99 percent natural - the only non-natural components come from preservatives necessary to maintain shelf life, said spokeswoman Aileen Zerrudo. "We still stand by the traditional products," she said. "We also know that the consumer wants a natural way to clean." While existing Clorox products have disinfecting properties strong enough to kill powerful germs including the MRSA superbug, its new natural products don't, she added. But the new products coming out generally work better than the earliest "green" products, said Lauren Heine, senior science advisor with the nonprofit group Clean Production Action. "Early green products weren't very good. That's not true anymore. The new green chemicals and products look great," she said. Consumers may be paying a premium for these products now, but that will change as more companies begin using green ingredients and the supply infrastructure matures, she added.
IS `NATURAL' BETTER?
Manufacturers claim that all their products are screened for safety, and they're safe if used as directed. But environmentalists will point to negative health effects and environmental consequences from exposure to some traditional ingredients.
It could be that they're both right - to an extent. That's because there are some unknowns about the effects of some cleaning ingredients, said Urvashi Rangan, senior scientist and policy analyst at Consumers Union, which publishes Consumer Reports. "For the most part, most of the ingredients fall somewhere in between. There's a big gray area," she said. "Thousands of ingredients on the market don't have the safety testing that you might hope they do," with the exception of those proven to be most toxic, she added. It's that gray area between safe and unsafe that worries some consumers, she said. And some ingredients may affect only people with sensitivities to them, Heine said. Some ingredients have proven to be harmful when used incorrectly. Ammonia - commonly found in floor, bathroom tile and glass cleaners - can be irritating to the respiratory passages when inhaled and can burn skin on contact, according to Consumer Reports' Greener Choices Web site, at GreenerChoices.org. And mixing ammonia products with chlorine bleach produces a poisonous gas. Other ingredients are believed to have negative effects on the environment. Nonylphenol ethoxylates _ found in some detergents, stain removers, citrus cleaners, and disinfectants _ "can act as hormone disrupters, potentially threatening the reproductive capacity of fish, birds, and mammals" when released into the environment, according to the Greener Choices site. Read more Consumer Reports information on cleaning products. http://www.greenerchoices.org/products.cfm? product=greencleaning&page=RightChoices To help consumers identify products that use the safest available ingredients, the EPA has developed a Design for the Environment label. A list of products that meet the standards for this program is on the EPA's Web site. Visit the site. www.epa.gov/dfe/pubs/projects/formulat/label.htm
A FEAR FACTOR?
Some consumers feel that if a product hasn't been proven to cause cancer or reproductive harm it's safe if used as directed, Rangan said. Others are leery of unknown health and environmental effects or are concerned about the consequences if their children are exposed to harmful ingredients. For these people, natural products have a certain appeal.
To address this type of consumer, some products on the market are being made without ammonia, for example, Heine said. Products are also made to be less volatile, so fewer chemicals will enter the air, and cleaning formulas are being made so that they're more biodegradable than their predecessors, she added. But Sansoni, of the Soap and Detergent Association, said that some marketers of natural products as well as activists may "go overboard" and fuel some fears about the use of traditional cleaners. Cleaning products people have been using for years are safe when they're used as directed, he said. And according to a recent survey done by the group, 85 percent of the 1,013 adults who were polled believe that statement. "Most consumers aren't walking around with a chemistry textbook in their pocket. The most important thing on the label is the safety and usage information," he said. Plus, words like "nontoxic" or "natural" or "green" are often marketing terms, and not terms of science, Sansoni said. And on that, Rangan agrees. She advises looking at the ingredients before buying a natural cleaning product. Manufacturers aren't required to detail every ingredient in their products (a protection they're given to guard secrets from competitors). But if a product claims to be natural, make sure the company spells out why, she said. "If you don't see an ingredient list and see something that claims to be natural, you may want to take a pass," Rangan said. That may be especially a good idea if the natural alternative costs more, she said.