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Why Some "Green" Cleaners Get Poor Grades

Date posted: 2012-10-05

A number of cleaning product manufacturers are expressing surprise at their products' scores on Environmental Working Group's Guide to Healthy Cleaning.

Frankly, we're surprised they're surprised. The fact is, the industry has gotten complacent about its obligations to inform the public about what's in its products, partly because the law gives it considerable latitude when it comes to disclosing specific ingredients.

EWG thinks makers of cleaning products can do better. Our supporters tell us they care - a lot - about what's in the products they buy. They want and deserve full disclosure of ingredients and potential contaminants in cleaning products - printed clearly on the label, so they know right away whether the product is something they want to put on their shelves and under their sinks.

Demand for greener products rising

We have every reason to believe that consumers will vote with their pocketbooks for safer products. And as manufacturers meet this growing demand for safer, more transparent products, the marketplace will be transformed in a way that is responsive to public health and the environment.

Since we began compiling information for our Guide to Healthy Cleaning, we've already seen some important market changes. Take Method, a popular maker of "green" cleaners. Method's executives were not happy with the initial scores we gave to 51 of their products: no As, 6 Bs, 5 Cs, 21 Ds and 19 Fs. They asked us to explain why their grades were so low.

How we analyzed Method products

There were several reasons.

We found factual errors in the information for two products entered into our system. These were caused by a glitch in the programming that powers our guide. We corrected them immediately. We have a longstanding commitment to accuracy and will correct any other errors we find.

But in most cases, Method's low scores were attributable to the company's failure to disclose specific ingredients. We score products based on two primary factors: disclosure and potential hazards. Whenever a company uses a generic term like "color," "surfactant" or "preservative" and doesn't provide the names of the chemicals it uses from that generic group, we give it a low disclosure score. Its hazard score also suffers because we err on the side of caution for consumers and score based on the most noxious chemical in the generic category.

For example, some surfactants are made with quaternary ammonium compounds. These may trigger asthma attacks or even induce asthma in people not previously diagnosed with the disease. EWG thinks consumers deserve to be on guard against the worst-case scenarios behind those generic terms.

Our initial analysis determined that Method's labels and website used generic terms for fragrances, preservatives and colorants. The labels we obtained did not disclose chemicals in its surfactants either, but its website did.

After some discussions with Method, we made a concession. We decided it was reasonable to make this modification to our scoring system for Method (and any other maker of cleaning products): If the specific ingredients represented by a generic term such as surfactant are disclosed on the company's website, we would score the product's potential hazards strictly on those disclosed chemicals, not on any of the other chemicals that might qualify as surfactants. However, we would still penalize the company for failing to disclose all of its ingredients on the product label.

Method executives said they wanted to work with EWG to move ahead with greater transparency about the chemicals in their colorants. We welcomed this as a great boon for consumers and a sign of rapid change in the market. On September 12, we agreed to suspend Method's products from our guide for two weeks to allow Method to make the promised disclosures, after which we said we would re-run the products' scores based on the new product information being made available to consumers.

New scores for Method

Those two weeks have passed. EWG is re-publishing Method's products with new scores based on the changes the company has made. Among the same 51 products, there are now no As, 5 Bs, 17 Cs, 9 Ds and 15 Fs. Some new scores are still relatively low because while Method has provided online a list of specific chemicals used as colorants in its products, it has not sent us new labels and packaging. Nor has Method made public a full list of chemicals that make up its preservatives.

Why we scrutinize preservatives

We are pressing to know exactly which chemicals are in Method's, and other companies', preservatives because some preservatives used by this industry are designed to react with water in the bottle to release formaldehyde, a preservative linked to asthma and allergic reactions. The U.S. government has banned formaldehyde in foam insulation, restricted its use in other building materials and last year declared it a known human carcinogen.

Recently, we discovered that more than half the products we rated by another "green" cleaner maker named BabyGanics contained a preservative called HHT (hexahydro-1,3,5-tris(2-hydroxyethyl)-s-triazine), which reacts with water and releases formaldehyde during product use. BabyGanics did not disclose this chemical on its labels or website until after we launched our guide.

Method asserts on its website that its preservative chemicals are "safe for people (low skin + eye irritation)," that they "biodegrade...readily" and are "made from synthetic materials." Yet it does not say precisely what these preservative chemicals are. Essentially, Method is asking consumers to trust it. We believe consumers can only trust this company when they know exactly what it is selling.

EWG created this guide to achieve two goals: to help consumers choose cleaning products at the store and to educate them about products they may have in their homes. For these reasons, we maintain ratings and descriptions of older versions of products, and/or their labels, even after new versions are introduced. We are confident that as consumers learn more about the bad stuff in some cleaning products, they'll put pressure on manufacturers to come up with safer alternatives to the chemicals used - and the whole market will change accordingly.

Method, among others, has objected to our policy. In an online industry publication called Greenbiz.com, Drummond Lawson, director of sustainability for Method, argues that our guide contains "an array of errors - mistaken formulations, incorrect ingredients, outdated products (by years), and most problematically, ingredient ratings that assessed a broad class of materials rather than the actual, specifically listed ingredients."

Obviously, we disagree. It's true that a few companies found a handful of clerical errors among the more than 2,000 products listed in the guide. Our goal has been to update every product page that contained an error as soon as a company flags it.

Stores stock up -- and so do consumers

If Lawson thinks the products we found online and in stores are "outdated," then he's out of touch with modern retailing. Wholesalers and retailers may keep products in warehouses or back rooms for weeks or months. Once they're in stores, those products may not fly off the shelves.

Our guide is based on the reality the consumer faces, not marketers' lofty hopes. Once consumers take that detergent or surface cleaning product home, we think it's reasonable to anticipate they will have it around for a while. We're all busy people. We work long hours and have many obligations to family and friends. Some people commute long distances. Others live miles from the places where they shop. People may buy two or three boxes or bottles of cleaning products at a time and store them for future use. They can't afford to toss all that stuff out whenever a manufacturer changes a formulation. These are the realities we have in mind when we create our consumer guides.

As for the charge that we rated "a broad class of materials rather than the actual, specifically listed ingredients" - we rate the specifics when companies disclose them. When they don't, we err on the side of caution and give consumers our best understanding of what generic terms and other unknowns might mean for them.

We can't rate what we can't see

Lawson's Greenbiz piece asserts, "We believe in the value of transparency. We disclose the detailed composition of our products and the practices used to make them."

That's an approach we heartily endorse. As soon as we see the detailed composition of Method's fragrances and preservatives, we'll score them and publish them on our guide accordingly. Similarly, when we confirm that Method has disclosed specific colorant and surfactant chemicals on its labels, we will rescore those products.

The million or so people who visit our website every month will take it from there.

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About the ratings About the ratings
EWG provides information on cleaning product ingredients from the published scientific... continue reading →
EWG provides information on cleaning product ingredients from published scientific literature, to supplement incomplete data available from companies and the government. The ratings indicate the relative level of concern posed by exposure to the ingredients in this product - not the product itself - compared to other product formulations. The ratings reflect potential health hazards but do not account for the level of exposure or individual susceptibility, factors that determine actual health risks, if any. (Hide)
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