This article is the second of a series of two extracted from the publication “Cleaning Agents: The Divide – Human Friendly vs Environmentally Friendly” by T. C. Yeomans, N. McKeon, J. McKeon and E.B. Mitchell, which appeared in the cleaning technology journal Tenside Surfactants Detergents (issue 02/2010, pages 81 – 86).
The last decade or so has seen an exponential increase in the amount of products that are sold or marketed as being environmentally friendly. However, for many consumers the main impetus in the purchase of “green” cleaning products is the health of the individual rather than concern for the environment. Despite the impression of consumers that environmentally friendly cleaners are also better for their own health, these products can contain ingredients that may cause inhalation difficulties and irritation for sensitive individuals. The development of strict guidelines for both the constituents and the labelling of cleaning products could allow consumers to choose an effective product that is also human and environmentally friendly.
In addition to ensuring that it can effectively carry out its intended purpose, the health aspects of a cleaning product should be borne in mind at all stages during its development. This can be done by addressing a number of issues. The toxicity of the cleaning product should be assessed by thoroughly reviewing the current literature, medical positioning, experimental data and government regulations/recommendations. Manufacturers should substitute constituents, where possible, in order to use ingredients that are least capable of causing irritation. This could be done by making use of studies such as one carried out in 2007 that divided 26 fragrance compounds identified as allergens by the Science Committee on Consumer Products (SCCP) of the European Commission into three different classes according to their ability to elicit an irritant response. Finally, ingredients should only be included in the formulation if they are absolutely required and even then, only the most appropriate ingredients should be used at their lowest possible active concentration.
Once a cleaning product has been developed there are many factors to consider in relation to its labelling. Currently manufacturers are not legally required to divulge ingredients, although material safety data sheets (MSDS) are available for most products. A general description may be provided, such as “plant based cleaner derived from coconuts,” yet this may not provide the full story to consumers as the coconut derivatives sodium lauryl sulphate and cocamide DEA are potent irritants. Some companies list what is not in their product, but this is only useful to a consumer if the specific compound that they are sensitive to is mentioned. Although the SCCP has described 26 allergens that they require to be listed on product labels if they are present in the product, at least 100 of the 2800 fragrance ingredients listed in the Research Institute for Fragrance database are known contact allergens. Another issue is that the reportable concentrations of fragrances may be greater than the level at which they are clinically relevant, i.e. sensitive individuals may react to a fragrance even when it is present at a level lower than would necessitate its inclusion on the product label. While manufacturers would not be expected to anticipate every possible way that a consumer may attempt to inappropriately use a cleaning product, well documented examples of misuse should be clearly warned against on the labelling. The combination of incompatible products, for instance, can lead to serious consequences. For example mixing bleach with an acid containing product (such as toilet bowl cleaner) can result in the release of free chlorine, the inhalation of which may lead to acute respiratory distress. The final point in relation to labelling is that there should be regulation of the phrases manufacturers use to describe cleaning products. At a minimum certain words need clarification, for example constituents may be “natural” yet still be harmful for sensitive people as was described above for coconut derivatives. Other phrases such as “green” and “environmentally friendly” have been used so often in advertising and on labelling that they have lost all meaning. As a consequence of this the Federal Trade Commission has established guidelines for environmental claims setting out certain criteria that must be met before a product may be labelled in such a way.
While there are criteria for certifying cleaning products based on their performance and their effect on the environment, it is only recently that a health aspect has also been included. Some bodies, including EcoLogo, Green Seal and Nordic EcoLabelling, that operate to certify cleaning products (among other things) incorporate testing in relation to health. However there does not appear to be a specific health based certification for cleaning products. Certification by a third party can be an aid to the consumer and given the impression of consumers that “green” cleaning products are also beneficial for health, the development of criteria for a health based certification mark is a necessity.
The article above is the second of a series of two extracted from the publication “Cleaning Agents: The Divide – Human Friendly vs Environmentally Friendly” by T. C. Yeomans, N. McKeon, J. McKeon and E.B. Mitchell, which appeared in the cleaning technology journal Tenside Surfactants Detergents (issue 02/2010, pages 81 – 86).