Green – It Seems

Despite all the fine print on consumer labels, we still know very little about what goes into the products we use everyday

Walk down the cleaning products or toiletries aisle in any supermarket these days and you’ll find rows of soaps, lotions, window-cleaners and other products proclaiming their concern for the environment. “Green,” “natural,” “safe for you, and safe for the planet,” “gentle on the earth,” the product labels declare. They promise they are made with ingredients that are “98% naturally derived” and “non-toxic.” As public concern has grown in recent years about the effects of exposure to industrial chemicals, so has consumer demand for products free of ingredients that are hazardous to human health and the environment. The presence of such products now extends well beyond the confines of high-end and specialty stores.

photo of colorful bottles for shampoo or soapphoto PicsFive / Bigstock

In September, WalMart, the United States’ largest retailer, announced that it will eliminate as many as 10 toxic chemicals from cosmetics, personal care, and cleaning products sold in its stores and would require its suppliers to disclose chemicals in those products. In October, another giant retailer, Target responded to consumer demand with the announcement of a new “sustainability standard” it will use to assess the environmental and health impacts of thousands of items sold at its stores. CVS and Walgreens, the country’s largest drugstore chains, now offer store brand products made without some widely used chemicals of concern, such as formaldehyde-releasing compounds, parabens, phthalates, and triclosan. In the past year, Johnson & Johnson and Procter & Gamble have announced the phase-out of many of these same chemicals. Numerous companies founded on the premise of selling nontoxic products are thriving, selling their products through major retailers across the country.

These measures clearly represent progress toward safer products but much more information is needed to help consumers understand if a product with a “green” and “natural” banner on the label is actually “safe.”

Many questions about the chemicals used in consumer products remain unanswered. We don’t know, for instance, if eliminating certain chemicals from a product really ensures that it’s safe; we don’t know how manufacturers go about choosing safer chemicals to replace those found to be hazardous; and, even if a product has all its ingredients listed, we can’t tell for sure that they won’t cause environmental or human health hazards.

“Right now, companies are allowed to hide too much information from their customers,” says Stacy Malkan, cofounder of Campaign for Safe Cosmetics. “Lack of transparency is a big problem with many consequences. It’s unfair to consumers, unfair to companies that are making truly green products and holds back innovation. There’s little incentive for companies to change practices when they can hide the toxic ingredients and mislead customers with false marketing claims.”

This informational lacuna about what goes into the products we rub onto our skin and use to clean our clothes and homes exists largely because of with the way we regulate chemicals in the United States. Chemicals used in consumer products in the US are regulated by several federal laws, including the Toxic Substances Control Act and those overseen by the Food and Drug Administration and Consumer Product Safety Commission. While complex and far-reaching, these laws actually allow many chemicals with known environmental and health hazards to be used.

The Toxics Substances Control Act, regulates the more than 80,000 chemicals now registered for commerce in the US, many of which we are in direct contact with daily via our electronic gizmos, furniture, kitchenware, cosmetics, and cleaning supplies. When it was enacted in 1976, the law allowed some 60,000 chemicals that were already on the market to continue being used without additional safety testing. The Environmental Protection Agency, which administers the TSCA (pronounced “tosca”) has since required testing of only about 200 of these pre-existing chemicals. Which means that there are tens of thousands of chemicals in consumer products that have never been fully tested for their environmental and health impacts.

In addition to this information gap, the EPA says most of the chemicals currently used at high volumes lack a full set of basic testing data. TSCA also allows some chemical information – including names of chemicals – to be withheld as trade secrets. The EPA estimates that about 20 percent of all chemicals registered under TSCA are claimed as trade secrets. While information about these chemicals is submitted to the federal regulators, it’s not publicly accessible.

image of many colorful small bottles on a rackphoto Araraadt / Bigstock

When it comes to cosmetics, regulations are surprisingly lax. Apart from color additives that must have pre-market approval from the FDA and eight substances (including several carcinogens, a lung toxicant, and ozone-depleting chlorofluorocarbons) that the agency specifically prohibits, the FDA cannot test ingredients in cosmetics for safety before they reach store shelves. There is also no federal law that specifically prohibits the use of chemicals identified as carcinogens (beyond the several currently barred) or developmental or reproductive toxicants. If consumers report adverse effects after using a cosmetic, the FDA may test the product and recommend it be discontinued; but the agency has no authority to issue a recall of any personal care or cosmetic product.

The FDA has a voluntary cosmetics ingredients information program, but as of 2012, only about one-third of the 1,600 manufacturers registered with the program had submitted any records. The cosmetics industry maintains an online ingredient database, but it currently contains but a fraction of the substances used in these products.

Unlike personal care products, cleaning products aren’t even required to carry ingredients lists on package labels. And while some hazards, like flammability and eye irritation, must be listed on certain home repair products like paints and sealants, there’s no requirement for comprehensive ingredient listing on these products either. Neither is there any federal law requiring disclosure of chemicals used in food packaging and other products that are in direct contact with the food we eat.

Despite the trend toward “safer” products, many goods on the market still contain chemicals recognized as health hazards. The Oakland, CA-based Center for Environmental Health reported in August that all of the 98 shampoos, soaps, and other personal care products that it ran tests on came up positive for cocamide diethanolamine – a chemically modified form of coconut oil that is carcinogenic and is banned in California. Additionally, many hair-care products, including some marketed as baby and children’s shampoos, have been found to contain formaldehyde or formaldehyde releasing agents (of which there are dozens) with no indication on their labels that this respiratory hazard and potential carcinogen is among the ingredients.

A chemical-free product “is a physical impossibility.”

In the absence of adequate federal oversight, some states have taken steps to ensure that consumers have access to safer products and more information about the products they buy.

Maine and Washington now require manufacturers to report on the use of dozens of different hazardous chemicals in children’s products. California requires manufacturers to disclose to the state any cosmetics product ingredients that are included on its state or on federal lists of chemicals known to cause cancer or birth defects. California has also enacted Safer Consumer Products Regulations that establish a process for evaluating chemicals of concern in consumer products and finding alternatives. Given the size of California’s market, these regulations could affect products sold nationally and internationally.

In addition to these laws, nearly two dozen states have passed laws restricting the use of specific chemicals, such as flame retardants, plasticizers (certain phthalates and bisphenol A), formaldehyde, cadmium, lead and mercury, that are recognized as environmental and human health hazards. Some of these laws ask manufacturers to demonstrate that any chemicals used in place of those being restricted do not also have adverse health effects.

Apart from these legislations, there are many voluntary “ecolabel” and organic certification programs that products can qualify for and that ostensibly help consumers make informed choices. But there are so many programs – covering such a wide range of environmental as well as social, ethical, and safety issues – that such labels and ingredient lists can quickly get confusing. The upshot is that despite all the fine print, we actually still know little about what goes into products we use everyday.

It turns out this can be a problem for manufacturers as well. While we assume that manufacturers know exactly what’s going into their products, this is not always the case. Given the complex formulas of many products, companies often have supply chains that can include hundreds of different suppliers located all around the world. Considerable detective work may be required to find out exactly what chemicals are going into materials and product components. Even when a complete ingredient list is secured, there’s still the challenge of ensuring the reliability and accuracy of chemical toxicity information – and of making decisions based on that information.

At a recent conference in San Francisco held to discuss California’s new Safer Consumer Products Regulations (which went into effect October 1) many of the presentations focused on ingredient transparency and disclosure issues. There is often “a squeeze between consumer demand for more transparency and companies that say, ‘Just trust us,’” Roger McFadden, vice president and senior scientist at Staples, Inc, said at the meeting. Bridging this divide will be key to meeting the growing demand for chemical safety.

To begin closing some of the information gaps, the EPA, the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, and other federal agencies have embarked on an ambitious program using computers and robotics to do what is called “high throughput” screening. The program is working to test about 10,000 chemicals used in products for a range of health effects. The first results from these tests are expected in a few months. The EPA has also been working through its Design for Environment Program to identify less toxic and nontoxic alternatives to some widely used chemicals, including those used in some flame retardants and plasticizers. But the program doesn’t have the capacity to assess the entire array of tens of thousands of chemicals used in commercial products.

One of the biggest dilemmas in the quest for nontoxic products is figuring out if a chemical that is being used in place of one that’s been identified as hazardous is indeed safe – or at least safer than what it’s replacing. Given the long history we now have of replacing one toxic chemical with another – flame retardants and pesticides are two categories of chemicals in which this has happened – there is a broad commitment that such cycles of “regrettable substitutions” not be perpetuated.

The process of looking for a replacement for a toxic chemical is often referred to as an “alternatives assessment.” Such assessments have become central to how many companies go about selecting new materials and complying with chemicals management regulations; they are also a key component of California’s Safer Consumer Products Regulations. The assessments rely on evaluation tools like the “GreenScreen for Safer Chemicals” that work by collecting existing toxicity information about a chemical and scoring the chemical accordingly on a scale of high through low-to-no hazard.

GreenScreen, which was developed by the nonprofit Clean Production Action, is now being used by Hewlett- Packard, Nike, the Washington State Department of Ecology, the Healthy Building Network, and the EPA, among others. The tool is freely available online and can be used by anyone, but companies wishing to make public claims about their products based on these assessments need to have their results validated by a third party.

Unlike the existing federal system of regulating chemicals, assessment tools like GreenScreen do not consider the absence of toxicity data as proof that a chemical is safe. If no information is available for any of the hazard endpoints used for scoring, the resulting data gap is taken to mean the chemical may not be the best or safest choice.

Alternatives assessment tools also don’t evaluate a substance’s full environmental footprint, such as its energy and water use, climate change impacts, and the social and ethical issues associated with its production and sourcing. These questions, however, have been incorporated into guidelines developed by a group called BizNGO. Many companies, among them Hewlett-Packard and chemical manufacturer BASF, are also asking these questions as part of ongoing materials evaluations.

One other drawback of these assessment frameworks is that they may not clarify what a product label means when it says “green,” “natural,” or “safe.” While “organic” has a regulatory definition, the terms “natural,” “safe,” “chemical-free,” and “green” do not. Sometimes the marketing claims don’t even make sense. As University of Oregon Professor of Organic and Materials Chemistry James Hutchison notes, a chemical-free product “is a physical impossibility.”

Alternatives assessment tools, however, do help correct assumptions many people make that lab-created chemicals are more toxic than naturally occurring ones.

“I look at everything as a chemical,” says Gay Timmons, president of Oh, Oh Organics, a California-based company that supplies organic ingredients to cosmetic and personal care product manufacturers, explaining her approach to ingredients. While there are different questions to be asked about the sourcing of naturally occurring substances and synthetics, the toxicity of both needs to be evaluated. One of the challenges is deciding which questions to ask to arrive at an assessment of a chemical that everyone using that substance can agree on.

In many cases, alternatives assessments may identify the need for a nontoxic material that does not yet exist. “Of all the materials available, only about 10 percent pass the green chemistry 12 principles scrutiny,” says John Warner, president of the Warner Babcock Institute for Green Chemistry and one of the founders of green chemistry. The principles, originally published by Warner and Paul Anastas, director of Yale University’s Center for Green Chemistry and Engineering, include designing safer chemicals, using renewable feedstocks, and doing real-time analysis for pollution prevention. They apply across the lifecycle of a product, including its design, manufacture, and use, and are intended to be a roadmap for the synthesis of environmentally benign new materials.

Warner says that of the chemicals with identified environmental and/or health hazards now being used, “maybe 25 percent have alternatives available and about 65 percent still have to be invented.” He points out that most chemicals management policies – whether established by governments or private companies and organizations – are based on lists and the idea that avoiding certain chemicals will make a product safe. “To say that a product doesn’t have an ingredient in it, doesn’t really tell us if we’re really keeping society safe,” he says.

Warner advocates moving from what he calls a “list-based system,” to an “assay-based system” – one that determines safety by testing the entire product for hazardous attributes, not just by identifying individual chemical components. If a product is found free of any adverse health impacts, regardless of its chemical makeup, it should be determined safe. This, he explains, would allow for better assessment of products that contain new chemicals or chemicals that have not previously been tested for all the health impacts now considered key to determining toxicity.

A good example of a health impact not considered earlier, is endocrine disruption. During the past 20 years, scientists have discovered that many widely used chemicals previously thought to be without adverse health impacts can interfere with the body’s naturally occurring endocrine hormones. These hormones help regulate many vital body systems, including development, metabolism, and reproduction. These products include food containers, electronics, furniture, textile coatings, cosmetics, and personal care products.

Endocrine and other hormones have complex behaviors and the science of understanding how they work and how synthetic chemicals can disrupt their complicated and sensitive biochemistry is evolving rapidly. Exactly how to test a chemical for endocrine disrupting potential is a subject of ongoing scientific debate. Researchers say currently less than 1 percent of commercially used chemicals have been tested for endocrine activity.

So where does this leave us? The science of understanding the environmental and health impacts of chemicals is often controversial. The way a scientific study is designed can influence results and often lead to conflicting conclusions. The effect of a chemical on human health and the environment can vary, and in real-world exposure scenarios it is often difficult to pinpoint cause and effect.

At the same time, chemical safety is not a static concept. As Sarah Vogel writes in her book, Is it Safe? – the meaning of safety has “collided time and time again with advancements in scientific knowledge and popular demands to protect public health.” A material or product that seemed to be safe at one point may need to be reconsidered as new scientific information comes to light. This iterative approach presents obvious challenges for businesses and regulators, but it’s central to the growth of green chemistry.

The first step in determining whether a product is safe is to keep asking tough questions of manufacturers and the government agencies that are supposed to regulate them. This is not an easy process because it means rethinking many assumptions we’ve made about chemical safety.

Elizabeth Grossman is the author of Chasing Molecules, High Tech Trash, and other books. She is a frequent contributor to Earth Island Journal.

Get the Journal in your inbox.
Sign up for our biweekly newsletter.

You Make Our Work Possible

You Make Our Work Possible

We don’t have a paywall because, as a nonprofit publication, our mission is to inform, educate and inspire action to protect our living world. Which is why we rely on readers like you for support. If you believe in the work we do, please consider making a tax-deductible year-end donation to our Green Journalism Fund.

Get the Journal in your inbox.
Sign up for our biweekly newsletter.

Subscribe Now

Get four issues of the magazine at the discounted rate of $20.