The Name(ing) Game

legislationCheryl Hogue’s recent piece entitled “Naming What’s in Cleaning Products” caught my attention earlier this past weekend (C&EN, February 23, 2009).  Cheryl does a great job covering the interface of chemistry and the environment—hitting the high points while remaining concise—and the brief article in question is no exception.  However, the issue at hand was rather concerning.

In a nutshell, activists from an Oakland-based firm called EarthJustice recently filed a lawsuit in New York State demanding that several manufacturers/distributors disclose ingredients on the label of their household chemical products (detergents, cleaning agents, etc.).  Companies named in the lawsuit include Church & Dwight, Colgate-Palmolive, Procter & Gamble and Reckitt Benckiser.  The suit accuses manufacturers of failing to comply with a New York law that was enacted over 30 years ago.  The legislation at issue was passed in 1976 and makes two specific requirements.  First, the law essentially bans the presence of phosphates and nitrilotriacetic acid in household chemicals sold within New York State.  Second, the law requires household chemical manufacturers to stamp a list of ingredients onto the labels of their products.  From what I understand, this act was implemented to protect the overall environment of New York State (from urban areas to surrounding watersheds).  Ultimately, EarthJustice claims that forcing companies to comply with the law purportedly will increase public awareness, which, in turn, will help the environment

The lead attorney for EarthJustice, Keri Powell, made this argument to C&EN:

“People deserve to know whether the products they use to wash their dishes, launder their clothes, and clean their homes could be harmful.” 

I’m skeptical of this argument/lawsuit for a couple of reasons.  First, if this law has been dormant for the past 30 years, why is EarthJustice now pushing the issue?  Was New York State asleep at the wheel?  Isn’t this something that should’ve been handled by the EPA?  I realize environmental awareness is a hot topic and a popular vehicle for political action.  While the act of suing over labels to protect the environment is (in my mind) illogical, I am troubled over whether the issue is truly legitimate or a way for an unbiased organization to grind a political act (yes, I’m being cynical and possibly paranoid). 

Second, and more concerning, Ms. Powell (and her colleagues at EarthJustice) assumes that proper labeling will, in fact, increase public knowledge.  Her assumption is entirely conditional (certainly not sufficient) on whether or not a reasonable consumer would understand what they read.  Example: my mother is obsessed with the product Goof Off and has two cans of it on hand at any given time.  However, if Goof Off was labeled with its ingredients, she couldn’t tell you the first thing about xylene (the main chemical in Goof Off).  It took her strapping, young (and most definitely handsome) son to explain the potential risks of using such a product.

Don’t get me wrong.  My diverse background in hard science has taught me two very important lessons: learn as much as you possibly can and label everything.  Consumer chemical awareness requires the same conditions, and simply forcing a company to slap a label on something doesn’t solve the problem.  In my mind, the issue of chemical awareness is similar to the “ban dihyrogen monoxide” prank conducted a few years back.  Without education (i.e. learning what the chemicals names actually mean), this proposed labeling crusade is largely irrelevant. 

Furthermore, chemical information is readily available (assuming you or your public library has access to the internet).  While there are a few exceptions, every chemical product (including those used at home) must have an MSDS, which can be found online.  Every MSDS identifies the chief ingredients in said product.  Granted, MSDS’s were created for the purposes of right-to-know information in industrial/commercial settings.  But, in my opinion, if John Q. Consumer can read a label, he can certainly read an MSDS.

I salute EarthJustice for all the work they’ve done to protect America’s environment.  Their commitment to public interest is genuine and deserves applause.  However, I think they are barking up the wrong tree with this lawsuit—dragging a whole bunch of companies through expensive court process to get something to happen that’s relevance is moot (at best).  My solution?  Shift the focus.  For example, serve the public’s interest by teaching them how to access/read/interpret chemical information.  Or educate the public on how phosphates are detrimental to the environment.  Lobby politicians to entirely ban certain household chemicals in the state (beyond the ppm limits currently set). 

Let’s assume EarthJustice wins the lawsuit.  What happens next?  Maybe it’s me, but I don’t see an end game in sight.  

P.S. In addition to C&ENews, this story has been picked up by Scientific American, the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times.

13 Comments

  1. I see a Pixar movie coming out of that picture on the SciAm page…

  2. I think it’s irrelevant how consumers become aware of what ingredients to avoid. Like labels on food products, ingredient labels on household chemical products could help consumers choose products to avoid or minimize contact with certain chemicals.

    • I see your point. For example, if a governing body requires restaurants to “list all trans-fats,” consumers can avoid trans fats without knowing what they actually are. But, doesn’t that seem hollow?

      My argument is that the labeling requirement has to be coupled with general knowledge.

  3. Earth Justice’s end game is to call upon all companies to remove chemicals from their products.

    • I disagree. Their ultimate goal is environmental conservation.

      EJ is going after the wolves with a slingshot rather than calling the exterminator with a shotgun. I think that they’d make a bigger impact by making the State enforce the rule.

  4. You can read Cheryl’s story here (no subscription required) if you don’t want to dig up a print copy of C&EN.

  5. Cheryl Hogue says:

    Hi Jeremy —

    Thanks for the post.

    Earthjustice’s lawsuit is here, for anyone interested:
    http://www.earthjustice.org/library/legal_docs/cleaning-products-disclosure-petition.pdf

    BTW, the NY law doesn’t call for ingredients lists on product labels. It requires cleaning product makers to submit a report twice a year to the state. That report is to include the ingredients in cleaning products. (See Sec. 659.6 Disclosure of Information)

  6. The advantage to labeling, even if most people don’t understand what the ingredients are, is that someone will. Further, assuring transparency and disclosure assures certain behaviors as it does in the business world. You’re less likely to use certain ingredients if you have to explicitly claim you are using them. In the cases when you must it will be because it is a necessary requirement of the product’s value and not seller expediency.

    • that is what i was going to say, only a lot more eloquently than i was going to!

      seriously, how hard would it be for companies to list the active cleaning ingredients? if i needed to learn what the impact of using something like phosphates might be, the first step in my mind would be to realize which products i use actually contain them.

  7. Again, as I mentioned in the article, I am 100% supportive of labeling. I think the law should be applied on a federal level. The point is that consumers need to know why they shouldn’t be using phosphates in the house (for example).

    What’s that old saying (something like), “An thought without action is laziness whereas an action without thought is dangerous.”

  8. i think, that if you want to increase the awareness of society, we should start from what is the easiest – proper labeling. some people will know, for example, the harmful effects of aspartame, therefore they can avoid it by not using the product with aspartame listed as an ingredient of the product. if we only teach the society about harmful substances, without better labeling, nothing changes, as people do not know the contents of products they use!

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