Whenever California senator Ricardo Lara’s mother returned home from her job as a housecleaner, she would feel dizzy and sick. But she had no way to know what chemicals she was exposed to while she scrubbed sinks and toilets. Inspired to protect people like his mother from toxic chemicals, the senator wrote a bill—cosponsored by NRDC—that requires ingredients in cleaning products to be listed on boxes and bottles as well as online.
In October, Governor Jerry Brown signed the Cleaning Product Right to Know Act of 2017. Manufacturers of cleaning products sold in California―ranging from dish soap to car wax to air fresheners―must post all ingredients online by 2020 and on product labels by 2021. The law has been hailed not only by public health advocates but also by the cleaning products industry itself, which partnered with NRDC and other groups in shaping the new transparency requirements. It also represents a step beyond the labeling requirements for the cosmetics industry, where ingredients that add fragrance don’t have to be disclosed.
“We all have a right to know what’s in the products that we bring into our homes and use every day,” says Avinash Kar, a senior attorney with NRDC’s Health program who worked on the legislation. The ingredients list is especially important for those with allergies or who are prone to other health problems, such as headaches, red and itchy eyes, skin rashes, and asthma, that can be triggered by the use of these products. Notably, California’s janitors and other cleaning personnel suffer from work-related asthma at nearly double the rate of the overall workforce.
“The workers who use these products all day, every day now have an important new tool to better protect themselves from dangerous exposures,” says Nancy Buermeyer, senior policy strategist at Breast Cancer Prevention Partners. The same goes for the general public, which was strongly in favor of the law. More than three-quarters of the 1,000 registered California voters who participated in a January 2017 poll supported the policy to label cleaning products.
Having this information can help people make better decisions to protect their health not only day to day but also over the long term. Some chemicals found in cleaners, like benzene, can cause cancer and birth defects; others—notably, a class known as phthalates, often found in dish detergent—can disrupt hormones. Pregnant women, young children, and cancer survivors are at especially high risk from these products.
NRDC joined forces with the Environmental Working Group, Breast Cancer Prevention Partners, and Women’s Voices for the Earth to cosponsor the bill. Nine out of ten domestic workers and housekeepers are women, and most are Latina or African American. But very little of the research on the harms of the chemicals lurking in cleaning products trickles down to housecleaners and other domestic workers, notes Nancy Zuniga of the Institute of Popular Education of Southern California.
And what of the elements that make a hand soap smell like lavender and floor wax like lemons? These scents often show up on ingredient labels under generic terms—such as simply fragrance or parfum, when in fact they contain a whole host of subingredients, often including phthalates. The Cleaning Product Right to Know Act marks the first time for any kind of product that manufacturers must disclose the ingredients in their fragrances. “We know there are chemicals of concern in fragrances, as in other parts of these products,” Kar says.
The law’s supporters hope that the new disclosure requirements will ultimately make these cleaning products safer in the national marketplace by encouraging manufacturers to reformulate them to exclude carcinogens, reproductive toxicants, and other hazardous chemicals. When California’s consumers are able to factor the complete ingredients lists into their purchase decisions, they will be more likely to choose cleaning products that are better for themselves and their families. That, in turn, will create incentives for companies to sell only those products that meet such consumer expectations.
“We are looking forward to continuing and building on our relationships with the cleaning product manufacturers to encourage them to ensure that any reformulation results in the use of truly safer chemicals,” says Buermeyer.
Ideally, a cascade of results follows from legislation like this, says Kar. Armed with better information on the chemicals hiding in our cupboards, regulators can now take action on problematic chemicals when they are present in products. The new legislation should also benefit the companies who have been prioritizing the safety of their products and help customers identify and select these better products. Kar believes this transparency is an essential foundation for better toxics regulation.
In the past year, the Trump administration has radically shifted the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s chemical-regulation policies to favor chemical manufacturers like Dow and Exxon. The Obama administration had developed a strong series of proposals for legislation on toxic chemicals, and Congress stiffened the Toxic Substances Control Act in 2016. But last June, the current EPA administrator, Scott Pruitt, issued new rules with loopholes giving the agency the power to pick and choose which uses of a chemical it will assess. NRDC is already in court challenging those changes.
“The prospects for a strong regulation on toxins at the federal level seem rather limited at the moment,” Kar admits. “California stepping out to improve the information that’s out there about toxic chemicals and help protect people’s health is a really strong signal. It’s going to benefit not just Californians, but people across the country.”