Household cleaning products exist to solve a variety of common problems and concerns. Worried about germs on your kitchen counter? Use this disinfectant spray and chop your veggies without fear! Got kids and pets who track dirt and bacteria across your floors? Don’t panic, just mop them up with this special liquid and all your cares will disappear! In the never-ending laundry list of places that can collect dust, dander or mold (gasp!), in your home, there is a spiffy cleaner designed specifically to take on the chore.

Knowing this can bring great comfort to the modern homeowner. But, how many of us actually know what those super-secret cleaning ingredients are? Let alone their potential negative side effects… It’s a rabbit hole that many of us are wary to go down because goodness knows if we found out something was wrong with the products we rely on to stave off the cold virus and mold, how could we maintain a sterile home environment? (We know, we know, it’s a terrifying thought.)

Well, it turns out that this kind of mindset is exactly what has led the companies who make these cleaners to leave the sordid details about their actual contents off of the label.

Do American Consumers Have the Right to Know What’s in Cleaning Products? 

According to the Environmental Working Group (EWG), cleaning products, unlike food or personal care products, are not required by federal law to display a list of ingredients. Effectively, this means that even if consumers were aware of certain chemicals or ingredients that are known to be harmful to health, they would not be able to tell whether or not these items are included in the products they purchase. For example, most people are conscious of the fact that formaldehyde is not something they want to inhale – let alone spread across wide surfaces of their homes.

Without a requirement to disclose the ingredients in products, companies can opt to formulate their sprays, solutions and detergents with chemicals that “get the job done,” even if that comes at a cost to personal health.

Regulation of these trade secret chemicals is left up to the Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976, which regulates industrial chemicals. According to EWG, this act called for regulators to focus on newly created chemicals, allowing them to ignore the over 60,000 substances that were already in circulation.

While, of course, we like to think that the companies and brands we use are looking out for our best interest, the EWG explains, “Industry trade associations have launched initiatives to stave off federal legislation that would require ingredient disclosure for cleaning supplies.”

A select few trade associations, including, The Consumer Specialty Products Association, the American Cleaning Institute and the Canadian Consumer Specialty Products Association, have opted to create voluntary disclosure programs for their ingredient lists. This means that companies can choose to post the contents of their products online or in some form of public forum.

In the European Union, cleaning product labels are required to list certain allergens on their labels if they reach certain concentrations. In fact, many America companies who sell their products in European markets provide this information on their labels, but in the U.S. this isn’t the case.

EWG state that most major cleaning supply companies do post their ingredient lists on their respective website, but details surrounding how these ingredients can impact your health are not provided. That sort of sleuth work is up to the consumer.

Hey, they just make the products to clean, no one said anything about human health or well-being…

Why Consumers Deserve to Know What Harmful Chemicals are Hiding in Cleaning Products Anthony Aguis/Flickr

Questionable Cleaning Agents

So we know that legally, we don’t technically have the right to know what is in cleaning products or how they might effect us, but does this mean we should really be worried? The short answer is, yes.

At their most docile, a majority of household cleaning products will contain bleach or ammonia, these are the trusty “disinfecting” ingredients. When inhaled over long periods of time, these can cause damage to your respiratory system, burn your skin and if they are ever combined, create a potent, poisonous gas.

Due to gaps in the Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976, ingredients that pose well-established health or environmental hazards can be found in a surprising number of cleaning products.

“Long-term exposure to quaternary ammonium compounds, or ‘quats,’ such as benzalkonium chloride, which are used as pesticides in antibacterial cleaners and as fabric softeners, are known to cause asthma in previously healthy people,” states EWG. “The preservative bronopol (also known as 2-bromo-2-nitropropane-1,3-diol) releases formaldehyde into the cleaning products it is added to, exposing consumers to a potent carcinogen. Studies of both workers and consumers have linked some cleaning products to increased risk for asthma and other health problems.”

Cleaning products that smell like “citrus” or “pine” can contain more than 3,000 different chemical ingredients to create the perfect scent of “clean.”

These fragrances can contain ingredients such as linalool and eugenol, which are common allergens. What is more concerning is the presence of phthalates, chemicals typically used in fragrances, which are potential hormone disruptors.

People with asthma, allergies or chemical sensitivities can experience severe, potentially life-threatening reactions from exposure to these chemicals. EWG asserts that not disclosing ingredient lists puts workers such as maids and janitors at serious risk, especially considering the fact that they are exposed to these chemicals on a daily basis. 

And the damage caused by these chemicals is not exclusive to humans. When these products get poured down the drain, they do not break down and can persist in the marine environment. This exposes marine life to high levels of toxins that can damage their physiological functions just as they can humans.

Why Consumers Deserve to Know What Harmful Chemicals are Hiding in Cleaning Products Enviropureottawa

Protecting Our Health

In light of the many health concerns associated with exposure to chemicals used in cleaning products, California Assemblymember Reginald Byron Jones-Sawyer, has introduced legislation that would require manufacturers to disclose ingredients on both product labels and company websites. The bill is co-sponsored by the Environmental Working Group and the Breast Cancer Fund.

While you might think that giving consumers information about how the products they are paying for impacts their health would be a matter of “right,” sadly this is not the case – and transparency may not be fully achieved for years, if at all.

However, this does not mean that you have to stop cleaning your home altogether, in fact, there are many all-natural cleaners that you can make yourself to replace common toxic cleaners. Apple cider vinegar, for example, is a natural clean-all of sorts that can be utilized in every room in your home. Or check out this list of fruits that can be used as cleaners. If DIY isn’t your style, check out this list of all-natural cleaners that you can purchase in the store.

Image source: Fated Snowfox/Flickr