What's on the Product Label?
The government tries to protect consumers by regulating commercial product ingredients to some degree. Three different agencies work to regulate household chemical products. The EPA regulates pesticides, disinfectants, chlorine bleach and mildew removers. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates food, drugs and medicine, personal care products, and cosmetics. The Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) regulates the bulk of cleaners, non-chlorine bleach, and wood finishes.
Product label regulations vary by agency. Often the label states the nature and the level of the hazard. For example, the EPA uses three levels: caution, warning, and danger, to indicate the relative toxicity of a product. Caution means harmful if swallowed; an ounce to more than a pint taken by mouth will kill an average-sized adult. Warning means harmful if swallowed; a teaspoonful to an ounce taken by mouth could kill an average-sized adult. Danger means harmful or fatal if swallowed; a taste to a teaspoonful taken by mouth could kill an average-sized adult.
Importantly, the Federal Hazardous Substances Act (FHSA) requires hazard warnings on all household products that contain 10 percent or more of petroleum distillates (examples include mineral spirits, naptha, and kerosene) and certain other hydrocarbons: benzene, toluene, xylene, and terpenes. (Petroleum distillates are the primary ingredient in some furniture polishes, paint solvents, and adhesives. Terpenes are in products such as turpentine, pine oil, and limonene. Pine oil and limonene are found in some cleaning products and disinfectants.)
But products with less than 10 percent of these chemicals, some of which—such as benzene—are carcinogens, do not require the warning.
Another problem with labels is that they may list as "inert" some ingredients that may be even more toxic than the so-called active ingredient of the product. These inert ingredients are not identified and their potential to cause chronic health effects is not disclosed. Labels also fail to identify ingredients that may escape as volatile organic compounds to irritate our respiratory system, help produce smog, damage the ozone layer, or accumulate in the environment.
Label shortcomings have prompted local efforts to provide consumers with greater protection. In 1986 the state of California passed Proposition 65, an informal name for the Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act. The act requires manufacturers to warn consumers if a product exposes them to chemicals, above a specified level, that can cause cancer or harm reproduction.
The point of labeling laws is not only to increase awareness of toxic ingredients, but also to inspire manufacturers to replace them with safer ingredients. After Proposition 65, The Gillette Company removed the toxin trichloroethylene from its Liquid Paper Typewriter Correction Fluid, and Dow Chemical removed the carcinogen perchloroethylene from its K2r spot-lifter.
In 1992, Ohio consumer activists tried to pass a similar labeling law known as Issue 5, spending about $150,000 to promote the measure. But opponents, mostly large corporations, contributed nearly $5 million to defeat it, arguing through television advertisements that the law would lead to higher taxes and serious damage to the state economy.
Back in California, a coalition of environmental and labor groups filed a lawsuit in 1997 against the governor and the state Environmental Protection Agency for violating Proposition 65 regulations. The suit claimed the California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment failed to warn residents about potential exposure to 66 reproductive and developmental toxins identified by the US EPA in the federal Toxics Release Inventory. (The state EPA responded that it needed to do further review before listing the toxins, because the US EPA did not list all of the chemicals as "known" to cause reproductive harm, but listed some of them as "reasonably anticipated" to cause reproductive harm.)
These skirmishes reveal that considerable responsibility for preventing your family's exposure to hazardous household products rests ultimately on your own shoulders. And that is why you want to be an educated consumer with an enquiring mind!
Consumers can learn about any household chemical product by asking the manufacturer for a copy of the material safety data sheet (MSDS). This sheet lists complete information about the product, including all safety precautions. How do you contact the manufacturer? Check product labels for manufacturer's telephone numbers. Also look up manufacturers on the Internet and check for the MSDS.