Lost in the hubbub: Many products with unlisted toxic ingredients.

Posted by Emily Barrett at Jun 11, 2010 02:00 PM |

  Amid recent media buzz about dangerous ingredients lurking in perfumes and sunscreens, Kiera Butler's May 17th article in Mother Jones serves as a needed reminder that the problem of hidden toxic substances is much more extensive. As Butler's article explains, the ingredient lists of popular household cleansers often fail to reveal what is really contained in the products. Terms like "fragrance," "dyes," and "preservatives" are commonly used as catch-all phrases, leaving consumers with a false sense of safety. In reality, a whole host of risky chemicals (or combinations of chemicals) may be included in common household products under those umbrella terms.

When Environmental Working Group (EWG) released their report on hidden chemicals in fragrances in early May 2010, the popular press quickly embraced the story, even if they often missed the point that the problem almost certainly extends far beyond the several dozen specific perfumes named in the study. Similar alarm was raised later the same month when EWG published its annual report on sunscreens, finding the majority contain potentially hazardous ingredients. Again the media raised consumers' concerns about the products they buy.

Yet, lost in the resulting hubbub, is the fact that there are many other everyday sources of hidden exposure to toxic chemicals that present equal or greater risks. As the Mother Jones article describes, although the ingredient lists rarely mention them, chemicals ranging from phthalates to surfactants are common components of household cleansers.  What's more, the manufacturers bear no responsibility for listing compounds that are inadvertently produced when two or more cleanser ingredients interact with one another, such as when ammonia and chlorine create chloramine, a respiratory irritant.

 Babies and young children tend to be particularly vulnerable to the effects of environmental chemicals because many of their body systems are still developing. Pregnant women are similarly advised to be wary of such chemicals because of the potential risks to their fetuses. Butler reports that some companies (namely S.C. Johnson and Simply Green) are now starting to make full product ingredient lists public. In the meantime, concerned consumers might consider making their own ecofriendly cleaning products.