Greening your cleaning

Staying clean is a necessity and a luxury in our modern life. As new cleaning products flood the market and capture our attention with clever marketing and earthy packaging, it is difficult to know what to choose. What is best for us and our home, planet Earth?

We trust science every time we use a product, even though we have little knowledge of the contents, how it will affect our health and what impact it has on our environment, including the landfills worth of packaging produced by our continuous use. Whether it is dish soap, laundry detergent, shampoo or toothpaste, taking a look at the ingredients, considering our options and making careful choices to create less waste can be a smart way to go.

Label lingo

What is inside our cleaning products?

Labels can be misleading and the regulations behind labeling are equally confusing. Food items and cosmetics are required by the Food and Drug Administration to be transparent and must list all contents. However, cleaning products are regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency and are not required to list all the chemical ingredients.

Companies that manufacture cleaning products are only required to list any “chemicals of known concern” and can get by with just giving partial information or referring to a website. Take a peek under your own kitchen sink and you are likely to find products showing one ingredient that makes up as little as 1 percent and the remaining 99 percent listed as “other ingredients.”

Safe until proven dangerous

It was scary enough to learn that during my grandmother’s generation, dangerous lead and radioactive chemicals were often mixed with all kinds of household products, before the safety of the product was known. In those days, advertisements often boasted about these ingredients and powerful results.

Unfortunately, not much has changed since my grandmother’s generation. Not only are we still in the dark about the effects of most chemicals on humans and nature, but companies still do not have the burden to prove the safety of new chemicals.

How could this be true, you ask?

Well, mainly due to outdated legislation. The Toxic Substance Control Act passed in 1976, mandates that the burden is on the EPA to prove chemicals unsafe, not the company making and profiting from them.

Once a company makes an application informing the EPA of their intent to produce a new chemical, they are not required to provide any safety data. The EPA has 90 days to research and discover any risks or else the chemical can be produced and sold, by default.

In the 40 years since the TSCA passed, only 200 chemicals have been reviewed by the EPA and only five of them have been regulated. That’s against a backdrop of more than 8,000 chemicals that are produced in the United States.

Come clean

There is some good news.

As amazing as it may seem, this month Congress passed a bipartisan (remember that word?) TSCA reform bill giving the EPA power to require companies to provide health and safety data for untested substances. This will better allow the EPA to keep unsafe substances from reaching the market. While it is not a perfect bill and may take a long time to get implemented,it definitely is a move in the right direction.

Websites like the Environmental Working Group (ewg.org), a nonprofit research group that reports on a wide range of products, can empower readers with information needed to make healthy, environmentally friendly choices.

Or, if you are like me and forget to do your research before your next shopping day, you can always download a free app on your phone, such as Good Guide, Think Dirty or Buycott. One quick scan of the barcode and you are privy to a wealth of data regarding that product and its safety to help you make an informed decision. Even without an app, you can always rely on warning verbiage such as caution, corrosive, danger, irritant or poison to be our guide.

One product brand that has taken the environment seriously is Seventh Generation. Its mission is in its name: The company has long-term goals to nurture the health and environment for the next seven generations.

Seventh Generation started a campaign called Come Clean. The company voluntarily lists all of the ingredients in its products and believes that all companies should do the same. It was behind a California bill this year that would require mandatory labeling of ingredients for all cleaning products.

DIY

Finally, for those not only concerned with safety but also wish to reduce your trash footprint, making your own cleaning products may not be as hard as you think. You may even have most of the needed ingredients already in stock.

There are plenty of do-it-yourself websites to try homemade remedies. Here are just a couple suggestions.

Reuse an old laundry detergent container and fill it with borax, baking soda, natural soap and your favorite essential oils, and you are ready for laundry day. For toothpaste, repurpose a glass jar from your recycle bin, mix coconut oil, baking soda and drops of peppermint essential oil and voila! You’ve saved trash from the landfill and can relax about your family’s health and safety.

To live in clean surroundings is desirable for sure, but at what cost? I wish I had taken more time, researching and asking questions about the products I used when my girls were small, but it is never too late.

In addition to trying new recipes, now I make sure to allow more time to shop, armed with reading glasses for the fine print and my handy apps to keep me armed with information that cannot be found on the labels. It’s a work in progress, but definitely worth the time and effort.

See my website for some more easy, safe recipes.

Mary Beth Horiai has split her adult life between Japan and Southern Nevada. In Las Vegas, Horiai works for the nonprofit, Green Our Planet. A graduate of UNLV, she was trained as a speaker for The Climate Reality Project and also teaches part-time at College of Southern Nevada. For more information and links to additional resources relating to this column, visit www.driverofchange.net.

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