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Online guide helps consumers get the dirt on hundreds of cleaning products

Published: Saturday, July 4 2015 2:03 a.m. MDT

A new guide that grades more than 2,000 household cleaning products found that only 7 percent of those products adequately disclosed their contents. (Shutterstock) A new guide that grades more than 2,000 household cleaning products found that only 7 percent of those products adequately disclosed their contents. (Shutterstock)

WASHINGTON — That air freshener you spray to rid your kitchen of its cooking odors may trigger an allergic reaction or aggravate your lungs.

Common spray deodorizers can also contain formaldehyde, used to embalm bodies for open-casket funerals.

A new guide that grades more than 2,000 household cleaning products found that only 7 percent of those products adequately disclosed their contents.

Put out by the nonprofit, nonpartisan Environmental Working Group, the guide offered grades on products found in most people's kitchens and bathrooms. The assessments are based on two key factors — the safety of the known ingredients and disclosure of the actual contents.

Unlike cosmetics and drugs sold in the United States, manufacturers of common household cleaning products aren't required to disclose a full list of ingredients.

FILE-  This Tuesday, May 2, 2006 file photo shows a shopper in Omaha, Neb., looking at Swiffer products. (Associated Press) FILE- This Tuesday, May 2, 2006 file photo shows a shopper in Omaha, Neb., looking at Swiffer products. (Associated Press)

"There's no regulatory requirement, so there is no incentive to," said Johanna Congleton, senior scientist with the organization. "They don't disclose because they don't have to."

The 14-month research project found that 53 percent of cleaning products contain ingredients known to harm the lungs, while others have ingredients that can aggravate asthma or disrupt hormone systems, particularly in aquatic wildlife.

Reproductive cycles of certain animals — including otters, fish and frogs — have been disrupted because of the chemicals used, and some detergents contain suspected cancer-causing ingredients for humans.

The team of scientists examined product labels, company websites and technical documents, reviewing each ingredient against 15 U.S. and international toxicity databases and multiple scientific and medical journals.

FILE-  This Wednesday, April 1, 2009 file photo shows Wendy Brooks as she cleans her windows with white vinegar and newspapers at her home in Phoenix. (Associated Press) FILE- This Wednesday, April 1, 2009 file photo shows Wendy Brooks as she cleans her windows with white vinegar and newspapers at her home in Phoenix. (Associated Press)

Kathy Van Dame, policy coordinator for the Wasatch Clean Air Coalition, has stayed away from certain products for years because of the indoor contaminants that spread through her home.

"It is amazing how many people are absolutely unaware of the risks," Van Dame said. "People have this idea that there is some sort of warranty on a product because they find it on a shelf in a grocery store. They think, 'What could possibly be wrong?'"

The Environmental Protection Agency provides a primer on how to make wiser choices in cleaning product selection and warns of certain health and environmental consequences.

Congleton said the Environmental Working Group guide, with its ample offering of failing grades, said an unexpected revelation to researchers was how many products were promoted as "green" but failed miserably when it came to detailing a full list of ingredients.

"That, frankly, was a surprising finding to us," she said. "They may have marketed themselves as green or natural, but they did not give us enough information to make an informed decision about whether the product was nontoxic."

For example, a vinegar-based product with a low grade on the organization's report card might actually be safer than a consumer may think because it earned low marks for its lack of information, Congleton said.

The Consumer Specialty Products Association, the trade group representing household and institutional products, reacted harshly to the guide the same day it was released. In a statement, the group said the rating system is "misleading about cleaning products safely used by millions of consumers every day."

Since the guide went online earlier this month, Congleton said several companies have wanted to work with the organization to provide more thorough information for a better score. She said the guide will be updated periodically.

The goals of the Environmental Working Group guide, Congleton said, is to educate consumers and push for change among manufacturers.

"This is a way to give busy consumers information they can quickly refer to before they go to the store," she said, "so they can make a safer purchase."

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