The Toxic Tradeoff: What Happens When Some Products Go Green

The Toxic Tradeoff: What Happens When Some Products Go Green

Recently, New York state became the first in the nation to begin enforcing a 30-year-old law requiring manufacturers of household cleaners to reveal specific chemical ingredients in their products. The idea is a mandate for marketers to identify any health risks their products pose with the intent of eventually eliminating the toxic chemicals that have become pervasive in consumer products throughout the U.S.

In fact, some say New York's actions may kick off a global trend, in which consumer and environmental advocacy groups successfully force product manufacturers to be more transparent regarding their use of toxic chemicals. These regulatory changes could subsequently transform purchasing behavior by encouraging more educated consumers. However, there's a catch -- green can be a double-edged sword. Some claims of green are barely plausible and are unregulated and misinterpreted by most consumers to the point where some products don't really work. 

Let's take a look at the new wave of so-called green household cleaning, and the move toward less toxic products. This represents a very significant and growing market, and one that's still in its infancy. Retail sales of green cleaners exceeded $500 million last year, but many estimate the total disinfectant market at nearly $20 billion. As demand for green products continues to accelerate and these figures start to skew the other way, consumers will be relying on a totally different type of product to clean their homes and keep them safe. 

Most consumers don't realize that the majority of mainstream household and consumer products with a green label do nothing more than dilute the toxic chemicals that have been in products for years, and some just add a botanical fragrance like lavender, bergamot or citrus. Although this may result in slightly less toxic and slightly more environmentally friendly formulations, efficacy is often compromised. The germs live on! 

Ironically, just as consumers are asking for less toxic product formulations, the threat of germs and other dangerous pathogens continues to intensify. Case in point, the recent emergence of NDM-1 was quick to remind us of the unique danger of resistant forms of bacteria, and the persistent threat of MRSA, and so many other pathogens that continue to affect public safety. Although banning toxic chemical ingredients is a step in the right direction, consumers will be just as misled on the efficacy of green products unless they are also held to higher standard of transparency.

For example, most consumers do not grasp the difference between a sanitizer and a disinfectant. A sanitizer kills 99.99 percent of bacteria and viruses, while a disinfectant must completely eliminate the pathogens.

The EPA regulates disinfectants and sanitizers and places a number of restrictions on how distributors can describe such product claims; and it turns out restrictions on marketing a disinfectant are much more stringent than those for marketing a cleaner and put constraints on manufacturer's abilities to educate consumers by categorically prohibiting comparative statements of efficacy, mention of toxicity, including even definitions and descriptions, or environmental impact information. How well is this really understood by the average consumer? 

There are a number of innovative formulas on the market today that offer highly effective alternatives to traditional chemicals, proving that products don't need to be toxic to be effective. However, these new formulations are typically "disruptive" technologies that require the EPA, consumers and industry to come up the steep learning curve and understand how they work compared with the incumbent technologies on the market. 

As the movement toward green technologies continues, it is critical that consumers take the time to understand what's really involved in the tradeoff from toxic chemicals to green cleaners. It is equally important that regulatory bodies require products that are marketed as green or non-toxic to be transparent in their efficacy, just as traditional products are required to reveal their chemical makeup.

Images CC licensed by Flickr users bark and Todd Baker << technowannabe.