Dear EarthTalk: Why don't cleaning products have to list their ingredients, and are these products tested for what they might do to your health? -- Patricia Greenville, Bethel, Conn.
Since cleaning products aren't food, beverages or drugs meant to be ingested, they aren't regulated, per se, by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. However, makers are required by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to list ingredients that are active disinfectants or potentially harmful. Otherwise, they usually keep their other ingredients secret, presumably so competitors can't copy their formulas.
But consumer advocate Sloan Barnett, author of "Green Goes with Everything," doesn't give manufacturers the benefit of that doubt.
"Call me suspicious, but I honestly don't think it's because the recipe is top secret," she said. "If it was, there wouldn't be so many competing products with identical ingredients."
Barnett thinks manufacturers don't want to scare off consumers by disclosing how many potentially harmful chemicals are flying under the EPA's radar in their products.
"The government only requires companies to list `chemicals of known concern' on their labels. The key word here is `known'," she said. "The fact is that the government has no idea whether most of the chemicals used in everyday cleaning products are safe because it doesn't test them, and it doesn't require manufacturers to test them either."
She adds that the EPA, under the terms of 1976's Toxic Substances Control Act, "can't require chemical companies to prove the safety of their products unless the agency itself can show that the product poses a health risk -- which the EPA does not have the resources to do since, according to one estimate, it receives some two thousand new applications for approval every year." She cited a recent study by the non-profit Environmental Working Group, which found that the EPA approved most applications within three weeks even though more than half provided no information on toxicity whatsoever.
Regardless, consumers should be familiar with what warning labels are on cleaning products.
"All household cleaners that contain known hazardous chemicals must carry a warning label that spells out potential risks, along with precautionary steps and first-aid instructions," reported Consumer Reports' Greener Choices website.
Some manufacturers are beginning to be more transparent about their ingredients. The Clorox Company, for example, one of the largest manufacturers of cleaning products, now publishes full lists of the ingredients for all of its brands on its corporate responsibility website, CloroxCSR.com. Many praise Clorox for doing so; others argue that, whether or not ingredients are disclosed, the company -- like many others -- is still in the business of making products that pose health and environmental hazards.
Generally speaking, if you're looking for safer alternatives, browse the cleaning products sections of natural foods markets such as Whole Foods, which are populated with lesser-known but more green-friendly brands. For do-it-yourselfers, the Greener Choices website also lists recipes for eco- and health-friendly homemade household cleaners using ingredients like baking soda, borax, lemon juice and vinegar.
Dear EarthTalk: We have an invasion of phragmites in the wetlands bordering our neighborhood. I understand they are a non-native plant that, if left unchecked, will overrun the whole ecosystem. How does one remedy this situation in an eco-friendly way? -- Jeff Willets, via e-mail
Fast-growing, fast-spreading phragmites (Phragmites australis), which most of us know as common reeds, can present a major problem in freshwater and tidal wetland habitats. This is especially so in eastern U.S. states along the Atlantic coast, but also increasingly across much of the Midwest and parts of the Pacific Northwest and southern Canada. While some sub-species of the plant may actually be native to our continent, it is non-native varieties that run rampant across North American wetlands today, presenting a formidable threat to biodiversity, crowding out other plants that wildlife depend upon for food and shelter.
"In the ecosystem it invades, its dense underground rhizome system actually raises the topography, eliminating the puddles and small pools of water so essential to fish, amphibians, turtles and waterfowl," reported Mike McGrath of Gardens Alive, a leading purveyor of natural garden and agricultural products. Phragmites are also allelopathic, he says, meaning that they secrete a compound which interferes with the growth of many other plants. Phragmites are also the bane of many a waterfront homeowner whose views are blocked by fast spreading, tough-to-eradicate reed communities growing between 12 and 15 feet high.
Plant biologists believe that non-native phragmites have gotten out of control in the U.S. because of their opportunistic nature coupled with the steady stream of freshly disturbed formerly natural terrain being made available to colonize. "When areas are drained for building, dredging takes place to save a beach, or other things are done to previously natural areas, it becomes more dominant than the non-aggressive native sub-species and other coastal plants," McGrath said. And that's why they call them weeds.
According to Washington State's Noxious Weed Control Board, getting rid of phragmites without resorting to hazardous chemicals (that will kill other plants and poison the surrounding environment instead of helping it) takes persistence, patience and proper timing: "If cut just before the end of July, most of the food reserves produced that season are removed with the aerial portion of the plant, reducing the plant's vigor." The board stresses that such a regime "may eliminate a colony if carried out annually for several years" and that "care must be taken to remove cut shoots to prevent re-growth."
"Repeated cutting of the green growth above ground will eventually exhaust the root system," McGrath chimes in. "If the plant is growing in water and you can cut it below the water line and keep the cut area submerged, the root system will suffocate within days...as the plant relies on its stems, living or dead, to convey oxygen down to the roots."
Yet another option is to graze it out. The New Jersey Division of Fish & Wildlife used sheep, goats and even cattle to control phragmites there, although to be successful the animals needed to graze over affected areas repeatedly, and others have not had as much success with eradication via grazing. Whatever method you choose, hunker down for the long haul and keep up the good fight. You are doing the right thing.
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