Image: Mopping the kitchen floor
Dennis Galante  /  Corbis stock
Sales of household eco-cleaning products continue to climb quickly although the sector still makes up just 1 percent of the $15 billion household cleaning products market.
By
msnbc.com contributor
updated 10/1/2007 8:44:52 PM ET 2007-10-02T00:44:52

Robin Freedman hasn’t bought a cleaning product in five years. But it doesn’t mean her house is dirty.

Instead, the Seattle mother makes her own homemade cleansers, using traditional combos as vinegar and water to clean her floors and bathroom. The reason: Freedman worries about the impact of chemicals in conventional products on her family’s health and the environment.

“If you can breathe it in and it stays in your nostrils, that concerns me,” said Freedman, 43. “Common sense tells me it can’t be good for my family. I’m trying to be a conscientious parent and a conscientious consumer.”

A movement is afoot among consumers such as Ms. Freedman to change how people clean, what kinds of products they use and how transparent manufacturers should be about what is inside their products. Instead of worrying about germs and dirt, these consumers are concerned about the chemicals sprayed to rid their homes of germs and dirt.

“There’s a real shift in thinking,” said Sheela Sathyanarayana, a pediatrician at the University of Washington, who is doing research on toxic chemicals in consumer products. “If we can use safe alternatives, why not?”

Credit the fast-growing organic and environmental movements, as well as new research that show a rise in occupational asthma among custodial workers and studies linking chemicals in cleansers to contaminants in rivers and low birth weight and infertility in mice. Rising cancer rates and recent manufacture recalls of toys made with dangerous lead paint also has heightened consumer skepticism about the products around them.

Grassroots environmental groups want more regulation over chemicals used in cleaners and consumers are asking manufacturers to list product ingredients on labels and discontinue the use of suspicious chemicals. A big concern: phthalates in glass cleaners and other consumer products that, according to some scientists, have been linked to reduced sperm count in adult men and allergic symptoms in children.

Image: Seventh Generation
seventhgeneration.com
Seventh Generation has enjoyed a 25 percent to 40 percent growth a year for the past five years.

One group, Women’s Voices for the Earth, will begin distributing online toolkits to consumers in December so they can host home parties in which guests make their own homemade cleansers from pantry items like lemon juice, olive oil and baking soda. “We’re hoping that will catch on,” said Erin Thompson, the group’s campaign coordinator.

In Washington State, some hospitals and schools now clean only with non-chemical based products. In Massachusetts, proposed legislation would require those same non-toxic methods be mandatory for cleaning daycares, schools and other public buildings.

Meanwhile, the green cleaning business is blossoming. House cleaning services in San Francisco and New York now sell themselves as “eco-cleaning agencies” and promise to make homes healthy as well as tidy, using a mix of recipes of vinegar and water and non-toxic cleaners.

Sales of household eco-cleaning products continue to climb quickly although the sector still makes up just 1 percent of the $15 billion household cleaning products market. Among the largest of these alternative brands — Seventh Generation — has enjoyed a 25 percent to 40 percent growth a year for the past five years. Sales will soon hit $100 million as its products have made their way into mainstream grocers and big box retailers such as Target, said company spokeswoman Chrystie Heimert.

Even Clorox, the largest maker of cleaning products, will roll out a new line of eco-friendly cleaners in January called Green Works. The all-purpose cleaners, glass and surface cleaners and floor, bathroom and toilet bowl cleaners will use plant and mineral-based ingredients, such as coconut oil and citric acid instead of chemicals.

“Our research shows 43 percent of consumers say they’re worried about chemicals in their household cleaning products,” said Matt Kohler, product manager for Clorox’s Green Works. “We feel this is a long-term growth opportunity.”

Kohler said Green Works products would be comparable in price and value to Clorox’s conventional products, which include Formula 409, Pine-Sol and Tilex.

Meanwhile, the European Union passed a bill that will require manufacturers to test thousands of chemicals used in consumer products and list any possible risks.

“We should have a right to know what we’re putting in our bodies and in our homes and make a decision about that,” said Steven Gilbert, who as director of the Institute of Neurotoxicology & Neurological Disorders in Seattle is pushing for more U.S. regulation. “Industry has got to get their heads around letting us see this data demonstrating the health affects” of products.

In the United States, the Consumer Products Safety Commission regulates household cleaners but only “strongly advocates testing” of product ingredients. The agency does not require or oversee testing, said Scott Wolfson, spokesman for the agency. Only household cleaning products that claim to be antibacterial must report ingredients to the Environmental Protection Agency.

One group, the Children’s Health Environmental Coalition, claims the government has not conducted even basic toxicity testing for about 75 percent of the 15,000 high volume chemicals in commercial use.

But household cleaning companies say they conduct extensive internal research to ensure products are safe for consumer use.

“Product safety and the safety of consumers that use our products is the top priority,” said Ross Holthouse, a spokesman for Proctor & Gamble, the consumer giant that makes brands such as Dawn, Mr. Clean and Cascade.

Although Proctor & Gamble lists some ingredients on its packaging, manufacturers of household cleansers are not required by law to list any or all of them on the packaging. No national standards exist yet for terms like “natural” or “non-toxic.”

“People hit a wall when they try to find out information and it raises eyebrows about what these companies might not be telling you,” said Urvashi Rangan, senior scientist and policy analyst at the Consumer’s Union in New York. “Consumers are left to be the guinea pigs in this.”

Brian Sansoni, spokesman for the Soap and Detergent Association, said mandating companies to list ingredients might crowd out more important safety information on labels. “Problems occur when products are improperly used, improperly mixed or improperly stored,” he said. “You don’t want your label to turn into an encyclopedia.”

More information
You can find cleaning recipes that use common pantry items at greenerchoices.org.

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