Cheap Cleaning Products, Toxic Homes

Ordinary cleaning products often contain potential toxins and chemicals that trigger asthma and pose other health risks. So an environmental justice group has been surveying local bargain stores and cataloging their cleaning products as part of a campaign to educate low-income consumers about the dangers in their cleansers. NAM environmental editor Ngoc Nguyen reports on their work.

SAN FRANCISCO, Calif. -- Tucked between the green grocers and taquerias throughout the city’s Mission District are dozens of dollar stores, packed on a stretch for nearly nine blocks.

Some of these discount shops are part of larger chains, while others are mom-and-pop businesses. All are seeing an uptick in business as consumers search for bargains in the dismal economy.

The growing popularity of these discount stores has Marie Harrison worried.

“Cheap doesn't mean safe,” said Harrison, who works for Greenaction, an environmental justice group that works with city residents. “That's it in a nutshell.”

On a recent Saturday, Harrison steps into the One Dollar One Store on Mission Street and heads right for the cleaning products aisle, armed with a white clipboard and a stack of questionnaires. She and two colleagues get to work, surveying the shelves for window cleaners, toilet bowl and oven scrubs, and the all-purpose stuff. They write down the manufacturer, ingredients, and safety warnings for dozens of cleaning products.

Marie Harrison surveys cleaners.Harrison and her surveyors will use the information, along with other existing data about a chemical’s known health effects, to determine which products are "safe.”

The ultimate goal, said Cynthia Knowles, a toxics reduction specialist with city-sponsored group SF Environment, is “to let residents know what’s safe when they go into a store.”

Knowles knows there is a connection between cleaning products bought in a store and health at home.

In her job, Knowles does home visits in neighborhoods with high occurrences of asthma, such as Bayview-Hunters Point, which has the highest asthma hospitalization rate in the city. With support from the city’s Asthma Task Force, Knowles and Harrison have been surveying residents about potential asthma triggers in their homes.

Asthma is a chronic disease of the lungs that can lead to breathing problems. It causes more school absences than any other chronic condition, according to health experts.

Most people focus on outdoor air, says Nan Madden, clinical director of the Pediatric Asthma Clinic at SF General Hospital, but the air in the home is equally important, and it’s a factor that can be controlled.

“A lot of them live in substandard housing where mold and mildew are ongoing problems,” she said. Half of the children Madden sees live in public housing where overcrowded conditions can, she said, “lead to a lot of dust.”

Parents in many of these families living in substandard housing, or potentially in any home, try to clean up with a host of cleaning products and pesticides – bleach to remove mold or rat and cockroach poisons.

Harrison said that during a recent home survey in Bayview-Hunters Point, she spoke with one resident whose method of sanitizing her home was using bleach “on everything.”

“She says, ‘I use … a cap full of bleach on the dishes, in the bathwater for children. I soak the children's clothes in chlorine bleach.’”

Harrison said she told her, “Oh my god, honey, you're killing [your son]. In an attempt to make him clean and keep your house together, you're virtually killing your kid.”

Substandard housing compounds the situation because many units are poorly lit and ventilated. Many residents in the neighborhood often keep their windows closed for security, Harrison said.

In order to figure out what people were using to clean house, Knowles says that they needed to find out what cleaners were available in local stores.

The group started taking stock of store shelves in the Bayview in August 2007, visiting big-box stores such as Savemart, Walgreens and Super Save.

Image removed.Cynthia Knowles inspects a cleaning product. Harrison and Knowles then decided to survey merchandise in dollar stores after learning that residents traveled to the Mission District to buy cleaning products there. From the store inventories, they compiled a database of product information for more than 200 cleaners. Data from discount stores in the Mission have yet to be added.

Although the findings are preliminary, Knowles says, they found that most cleaning products were not friendly to those with asthma.

Out of 213 cleaning products, baking soda received the highest safety rating. Some 68 products were red flagged as corrosives or asthma triggers and rated as “products of highest concern” for people with asthma. About 32 products received this same warning even for people without asthma.

Another 60 products received an “unknown” rating, because the product lacked ingredient information or hazard data for certain chemicals.

Aileen Zerrudo, a spokeswoman for the Clorox Company, a leading manufacturer of home cleaning products, declined to comment on the group's findings. Zerrudo said the company’s products are reviewed for “toxicity, sensitization (skin irritation) and environmental effects.” The other product makers included Reckitt Benckiser, SC Johnson and Son Inc., Carroll Company, and Procter & Gamble.

Clorox recently launched an online ingredient list for all its cleaning products. A review of ingredients for its Formula 409 “antibacterial” all-purpose cleaner turned up a chemical called ethanolamine, red-flagged as an asthma trigger by Knowles. Zerrudo declined to comment on whether Clorox takes asthma into account in formulating its products.

Knowles' and Harrison’s product sleuthing shows how difficult it is to assess product safety. Product makers are not required to list ingredients. And even with disclosure, a list of ingredients may not be that meaningful to consumers.

More useful, Knowles says, would be an “ecolabel” or “shelf talker” promoting greener products that consumers would find on store shelves.

Currently, there’s a patchwork of online resources where consumers search for product safety information, including the Good Guide and a National Institutes of Health database. The problem is that not all product brands are cataloged there, such as the brands she finds in the dollar stores.

Two new laws, passed in September, could change this by giving consumers more information.

One sponsored by Assemblyman Mike Feuer (D-Los Angeles) allows the state to identify chemicals and analyze alternatives to existing hazardous ones. A companion law, sponsored by Sen. Joe Simitian (D-Palo Alto), creates an online chemicals clearinghouse that would centralize all existing information.

Meanwhile, Harrison wants to bring change to her neighborhood by educating residents on alternatives to toxic cleaning products and asking discount storeowners to stock safer ones.

Gretchen Lee, policy director of the Breast Cancer Fund, says the women's efforts highlight the importance of consumer-driven change in the market.

Consumers were able to push retailers such as Wal-Mart and Toys "R" Us to remove from its baby bottles bisphenol-A, a chemical in plastic that mimics estrogen and interferes with normal development, because of concern over the chemical's health impacts.

"Going to retailers about what is in products they are selling is highly valuable," Lee said. "There's so much power at the retail level."