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Web Date: February 18, 2009

Naming What's In Cleaning Products

Activists sue companies, saying they must disclose ingredients under 1976 New York law
Department: Business, Government & Policy

Environmental groups on Feb. 17 sued four major makers of household cleaning products to force them to reveal the identity of their ingredients.

The activists are asking a New York state court to require disclosure by Church & Dwight, Colgate-Palmolive, Procter & Gamble, and Reckitt Benckiser under a 1976 state law that has never been enforced.

But the law remains in effect and companies are obligated to comply with it, says Keri N. Powell, an EarthJustice attorney representing the six environmental groups filing the suit. EarthJustice is a nonprofit environmental law firm.

The groups say they will use the ingredient lists to inform the public about toxic chemicals in cleaning products that may pose a threat to human health and to the environment. "People deserve to know whether the products they use to wash their dishes, launder their clothes, and clean their homes could be harmful," Powell says.

The law requires manufacturers of cleaning products to list the substances in each of its cleaning products sold in New York and to describe any health and environmental research by the company on those chemicals. This information is to be sent twice a year to the state Department of Environmental Conservation.

The Soap & Detergent Association (SDA), whose members include the four companies being sued, says the suit uses an "arcane" law "to disparage cleaning product formulators whose products are used safely and effectively by millions of people every single day." Calling the case "unfounded," the industry group says the activists lack the legal status to sue the companies under the New York law.

SDA and two other consumer product groups recently announced an initiative to provide more information about ingredients, either on product labels or on company websites (C&EN, Jan. 26, page 13). This voluntary program, says Michelle Radecki, SDA's general counsel, "will provide more meaningful information on ingredients, in a more consistent, easy-to-understand format that will help consumers make informed decisions about the products they use."

But the activists say the voluntary industry program doesn't replace the state law.

The environmental groups contacted the four companies named in the suit and asked them to comply with the New York law, Powell says. The four either refused or ignored the request, she says.

But five other cleaner manufacturers contacted by the activists have submitted product ingredient information to New York authorities, Powell says. They are Method; Seventh Generation; Weiman Products, whose line includes Wright's Silver Cream; Prestige Brands, the company behind Comet and Spic and Span; and Sunshine Makers, maker of Simple Green.

Powell acknowledges that the companies may have claimed the identity of some of their ingredients as proprietary. Names of chemicals claimed as trade secrets would not be made available to the public, she says, although state officials would have access to this information.

New York enacted the 1976 law as the state phased phosphates out of detergents, according to Powell. The statute was intended to prevent companies from substituting chemicals that pose a risk to health or to the environment for the phosphates they eliminated, she says.

 
Chemical & Engineering News
ISSN 0009-2347
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