'Natural' doesn't always mean 'safe'

03/06/2006
By From the Lowell Sun

By RITA SAVARD, Sun Staff

CHELMSFORD -- Biodegradable. Nontoxic. Natural.

Sound safe? Local chemists say think again.

When shopping for "safe" household cleaners, don't be fooled by environmentally friendly catchphrases, advises Carole LeBlanc, lab director of the Toxic Use Reduction Institute at UMass Lowell. In reality, "nontoxic" doesn't have to mean anything.

"Just because something claims to be natural doesn't mean that it is safe," LeBlanc said. "Snakes are natural, too, but their bite is venomous, and you can still die from it."

Unlike the food industry, which has been government-regulated to list ingredients, manufacturers of cleaning products are not required by the U.S. government to identify ingredients on labels.

The result, says LeBlanc, could potentially place consumers at risk.
By testing teaspoon-sized samples of blood or urine, the National Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found hundreds of chemicals building up in human bodies last year. Another study conducted by consumer-product watchdogs, the Environmental Working Group, reported numerous chemicals found in the umbilical-cord blood of newborn babies.

LeBlanc says such findings should be a "wake-up call" for policymakers to bridge the gaps.

"Consumers assume they are safe," says LeBlanc. "They trust that someone is looking out for their welfare and, unfortunately, it makes them susceptible to a barrage of misinformation."

To help consumers safely navigate their way through aisles of cleaning products, LeBlanc and TURI have composed a list of 10 ways to find safer cleaners.

Walking down the polished aisles of Hannaford supermarket in Chelmsford, a shopper is confronted with neatly stacked rows of colorful bottles and boxes all promising one thing -- cleanliness.

"It can be overwhelming," LeBlanc says. "Most shoppers look for two things -- price and familiarity. If you're in a rush and you have a child wiggling around in your cart, you zero in on what you know."

National health studies revealing childhood asthma and cancer cases in general on the rise have prompted more consumers to stop and look for eco-friendly cleaners. Sales of organic and natural household cleaners, which include laundry and dishwashing detergents, rose from $140 million in 2000 to $290 million in 2004, according to the Nutrition Business Journal.

But finding cleaners that do what they claim becomes a murky business, warns LeBlanc, because there are no regulations in place forcing manufacturers to disclose what they put in their products. Some companies do and others do not.

Simple Green is a popular household cleaner marketed to environmentally concerned consumers. It's green, smells lightly of sassafras, and the product claims to be "nontoxic" and "the safer alternative" to other cleaners. If a consumer wants to know what is in the "green cleaner," the company offers a phone number to call for a complete ingredient list.

"If a consumer asks for material data sheets (document that includes all federally listed toxic substances), the company still does not have to give them to you," advises LeBlanc.

A key ingredient of Simple Green is butyl cellosolve, a substance considered toxic by the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. In lab tests, the liquid has destroyed red blood cells and caused minor birth defects in animals. When absorbed through the skin or inhaled, it has caused irritation around the eyes and noses of humans and headaches.

Concentrations of the solvent in household cleaners are not thought to pose an immediate danger to people. But LeBlanc believes products should not be labeled as "green" if they contain ingredients that are considered to be toxic by the federal government.

Manufacturers of Simple Green, the California-based Sunshine Makers, stand by their claims, which they say are backed by more than $3 million in testing. On the Simple Green Web site, the Material Safety and Data Sheet reports that analysis by federal environmental standards "revealed no toxic organic or inorganic constituents."

"It gets so confusing for customers," LeBlanc says. "We're faced with an industry that does a poor job of training and a good job of marketing. Cleaners in stores are not as safe as cleaners that I have in my lab, and that is sad."

The chemist adds that the worst mistake people make is buying a disinfectant to clean. Disinfectants, she says, are essentially pesticides containing powerful agents that can kill organisms.

"Most germs are good," LeBlanc says. "We couldn't live without the buggers. The only thing you'll do by using an arsenal of disinfectants to clean an area is subject people to a lot of chemical they don't need."

Although the CDC began monitoring chemicals in human blood and urine three years ago, the national health organization states that having chemicals in the bloodstream isn't necessarily dangerous.

"Just because people have an environmental chemical in their blood or urine does not mean that the chemical causes disease," the agency's 2005 report says. "For most of the environmental chemicals for which information is presented in the report, more research is needed to determine whether exposure at levels reported here is cause for concern."

According to the EPA, toxic chemicals found in every home are three times more likely to cause cancer than airborne pollutants outside.

Children, says LeBlanc, are most vulnerable.
From floor cleaners to hand soap, parents want to protect their kids from germs and end up buying too many antibacterial products.

"If it's in your food chain, it should be OK to smell and use," said LeBlanc. "Make sure ingredients are listed as food grade."

In response to consumer demand, supermarkets like Hannaford have added "natural" sections in stores to showcase environmentally conscious products. While choices are broadening, LeBlanc says consumers should still do their homework to make sure the bottle matches the promise on the label.

Hannaford employee Rose Brink, who manages the "Nature's Place" section of the store, says product offerings are steadily evolving due to shoppers' requests.

Companies like Seventh Generation and Ecover are a couple that voluntarily list all ingredients on their labels. LeBlanc urges buyers to look for a "full disclosure" of ingredients on labels.

"This is a much smaller selection than the mainstream product aisle, but it's good nonetheless," LeBlanc says.

Learning exactly what is on a label is important since the eco-label almost always is accompanied by a premium price tag for "natural" ingredients, adds the TURI lab director.

The price tag can turn some people off, like dish soap at $3.49. Cleaning Products in Nature's Place range from about $3 to $20. LeBlanc reminds that "application is critical" and often less product can last longer than more product at the same price.

LeBlanc also reminds shoppers to look for ingredients they recognize, adding that sometimes less is more.

"The more people demand to know what a green cleaner really means, the more it puts pressure on lawmakers,"LeBlanc says. "Right now, it's just shades of green until the government comes along and makes manufacturers responsible for giving consumers a right to know."