It is generally recognized that the labels of cleaning products hide dirty secrets. No federal or state law requires manufacturers to disclose the chemicals in products used for scrubbing bathrooms, mopping floors, washing windows or any other cleaning job, whether in homes, schools or workplaces. However California has a chance to end the secrecy. Legislation by Assemblyman Reggie Jones-Sawyer, D-Los Angeles, would require all ingredients in cleaners to be listed on the label and online.
As a physician, I suggest my patients to always read the labels on food. On account of U.S. Food and Drug Administration regulations, food companies have come a long way in providing consumers with information about nutrients, allergens and other ingredients they need to know to safeguard their health.
Nonetheless, on the labels of cleaning products — both those we use at home and industrial-grade products used by professional cleaning services — a lot of chemicals hide under the term “fragrance.” It’s a vague and more or less meaningless label, and the closer you look the worse the deception smells.
More than 3,000 chemicals are commonly used to create fragrance. In addition to perfumes and air fresheners, manufacturers add fragrance to thousands of products. These synthetic chemical compounds provide the distinct lemon-fresh or pine scents in cleaning products, but can be found even in products labeled unscented.
Some fragrance chemicals are linked to asthma, cancer, birth defects and infertility. Up to 1 in 9 people are allergic to some fragrances. The only way to prevent a reaction is to avoid exposure to products containing the allergen — impossible when companies don’t disclose the chemicals on product labels.
This secrecy makes fragrance allergies harder to diagnose and to treat. A patient may be able to pinpoint the product that causes an allergic reaction, but that doesn’t help doctors identify the specific ingredient that’s the problem. Even if the chemical is identified, it’s almost impossible for patients to avoid it, because the label provides no clue. Patients with allergies have no choice but to try to avoid all fragranced products.
In an industry that relies on inept voluntary disclosure programs, the bill would be a game-changer. For the first time, Californians would know exactly what manufacturers put in every cleaning product and could make informed decisions to protect their health. As a doctor, I know this information is vitally necessary. As a consumer, I want to know what chemicals are in my cleaning products.
Ask your Assembly member to support this bill. Also, you can show your support by attending the upcoming Come Clean Rally on Jan. 20 on the Capitol steps in Sacramento.
Environmental advocates have developed guides to healthy cleaners and provided practical solutions to protect yourself and your family from exposures. Demand more information from the manufacturers of cleaning products.
If companies don’t want to tell people what they’re buying, they probably shouldn’t be selling it. Labels should allow for easy comparisons on the store shelf. More importantly, they should allow us to choose the safest products for the health of our families and ourselves.
And that, Magdalen Edmunds is a family physician providing primary care to adults, children and pregnant women. She works for LifeLong Medical Care, a not-for-profit medical home in Berkeley.