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New NPA Standards for cleaning products

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Sound Consumer | April 2010

(April 2010) — As an organic consumer, you make sure your food is free of chemicals, pesticides and other harmful ingredients — but do you take the same level of care when choosing cleaning products for your home?

It’s been hard to know, for sure. Disclosure of all ingredients isn’t required and labels on cleaning products are not regulated by the government. But soon, a new standard for household cleaners will make it a lot easier.

The Natural Products Association (NPA) has set guidelines for natural home care products (see npainfo.org), requiring that they be made up of at least 95 percent natural ingredients or ingredients derived from natural sources. They may not contain ingredients with any suspected human health risks, must not be made from processes using synthetic or harsh chemicals, and must disclose all ingredients.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has ranked indoor air pollution as one of the top five environmental risks to public health. It says levels of pollutants in indoor air can be from two to more than 100 times higher than outdoors, due mainly to harmful chemicals that evaporate from home cleaning products.

Some cause skin and respiratory irritation, watery eyes, or chemical burns, while others are associated with chronic illnesses such as asthma, hormone disruption and cancer. Once they go down the drain, some compounds inevitably wind up in waterways where they threaten water quality and fish and wildlife.

Safer alternatives

In choosing alternatives, be aware that terms such as “natural,” “nontoxic,” “eco-safe” and “environmentally friendly” may not mean much, if anything. Look up what certain labels mean and whether they’re valid according to Consumer Union’s resource, greenerchoices.org, which also lists specific ingredients to avoid when choosing commercial cleaners.

Never buy products labeled with warnings such as poison, danger or corrosive. Look for claims such as “No dyes, fragrances or chlorine” and “no phosphates,” found on many PCC products. Also look for products that have not been tested on animals.

You may wonder if vegetable-based cleaners really are better, and the answer isn’t as simple as you may expect. Most cleaners contain surfactants, meant to penetrate grime, and most surfactants are petroleum-based. Some products claim to use ingredients made from coconut or other vegetable oils.

The Washington Toxics Coalition (WTC) says it’s possible to make surfactants entirely without petroleum but most — even those that claim to be made from vegetable sources — are at least partly petroleum-based.

The primary advantage of vegetable oils is that they’re renewable resources, whereas petroleum is a finite resource that creates pollution when extracted and refined. This pollution may be partly offset by pesticide use and other impacts of producing vegetable oils.

Confused? Just remember the most eco-friendly, safe household cleaner is plain water — it’s been used around the world for centuries.

For added power, make your own inexpensive, all-natural cleaners. Basic ingredients — such as vinegar, lemon juice and baking soda — are great ways to attack grime and will work for most cleaning tasks. See top story Green Cleaning, Sound Consumer, April 2010.

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