Green chemistry is now a hot topic in California. Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed two green chemistry bills in Sacramento on September 29 in an effort to create greener products through the transformation of the state’s regulation of chemicals.
Most immediately relevant to GoodGuide users is SB 509, which Senator Joe Simitian sponsored. Starting in 2009, the California Department for Toxic Substances Control will build an online Toxics Clearinghouse Database with detailed information on chemical hazards to human health and ecosystems. The agency will pool data from existing chemical databases across the world, not just the US. (GoodGuide already uses many of these databases to help generate our health ratings.) This should vastly increase the amount of information that consumers can use to protect themselves.
Unfortunately, the new law does not impose a basic requirement on manufacturers to disclose all ingredients in consumer products, as opposed to reporting only hazardous active ingredients or using vague terms such as “surfactant” or “fragrance”. Nor does the law require the toxics database to address consumer products specifically.
The original bill, in fact, did have such a requirement. Companies were to reveal all substances constituting over 0.1% of a consumer product’s composition on their product labels or websites by March 2009, an effort to help consumers find healthier products. But, in August, Governor Schwarzenegger and the California Legislature succumbed to heavy industry lobbying and abandoned this badly needed reform. This lack of reporting impacts you.
Without full disclosure of ingredients in products, having publicly available information on health hazards will not be enough to empower or protect consumers. It won’t encourage manufacturers to introduce non-toxic cleaning or personal care products. It will still be difficult to challenge companies on what they are doing.
To see what this means for consumers, I walked through the cleaning products section at a Walgreens store near our downtown San Francisco office. Most products listed only one or two ingredients on their labels, even though they featured extensive safety warnings such as “If you swallow the product, contact your physician immediately”. Some air fresheners even warned that any pet birds in the room should be taken out for their protection.
Listing all ingredients in a product would support consumer and NGO monitoring of industry progress in bettering the chemistry of green products. The Department of Toxic Substances Control should still implement the database and insist that manufacturers provide full ingredient details. Additionally, making sure that the clearinghouse is easy to use and understand will make it a meaningful, not rarely used, tool.
Of course, some companies, such as Seventh Generation, Ecos, and Clorox’s Green Works line do already disclose their ingredients — And you can look them up on GoodGuide. There is definitely positive movement towards more companies introducing natural and green cleaning products. But, until every company lists all of their product’s ingredients, GoodGuide will continue to work overtime to bring you the best available information and health ratings on ingredients to help you find find better products.
This post was written by Professor Alastair Iles is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Environmental Science, Policy, and Management at the University of California, Berkeley. Dr. Iles studies science, technology, and environment, with a focus on how technologies – ranging from chemistry, energy systems, environmental health monitoring, to information technology – affect society and the environment. He received his PhD in Environmental Law and Policy from Harvard University, and previously studied Law at the University of Melbourne, Australia.