Secret ingredient: chemicals in cleaners

It’s not easy to find out exactly what’s in that spray bottle - and if it’s safe.
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01.Chemical labelling and regulation


If you’ve ever wondered what chemicals are in your cleaning products and whether or not they’re a long-term health or environmental risk, you may be surprised – and a little concerned – to learn that general household cleaning products are not required to label ingredients on the bottle. It’s something of an anomaly given that other consumer products, such as cosmetics and toiletries, are required to do so.

The most information consumers are entitled to when it comes to household cleaning products is a safety data sheet - which you need to contact the manufacturer in order to obtain, and which doesn’t have to include all the chemicals, just “hazardous” ones.

But whether or not a chemical has been deemed hazardous in Australia is a point of contention. Jo Immig, director of the National Toxics Network, says there hasn’t been enough scientific investigation for most of the individual chemicals that we use to conclusively determine their safety. While the EU requires manufacturers to conduct safety studies on both old and new chemicals before using them, Australian regulators don’t.

The way it works in Australia is that there are about 40,000 individual chemicals permitted for use in products, with the more toxic ones having additional regulations on how they can be used, as given in the Therapeutic Goods Administration's (TGA) Poisons Standard.

But those regulatory filters may not mean much - particularly as many of the chemicals permitted for use have never been assessed by the National Industrial Chemicals Notification and Assessment Scheme, the chemical safety regulator, as they were in use prior to 1990. Many chemicals in use in Australia are considered safe simply because they’ve been used for a long time without known adverse effects.

Despite all this, based on current knowledge, the experts we spoke to - including University of Adelaide molecular toxicologist Dr Ian Musgrave and toxicological consultant Hugh Scobie - point out that general household cleaners should be safe so long as they’re used as directed.

Scobie says there’s a lot of testing done on individual chemicals before they’re formulated into household cleaning products, although he does admit there’s no way to know with “absolute certainty” the chemicals are 100% safe. What may be considered safe today could change with more research.

One such example of how knowledge of the safety of chemicals changes surfaced earlier this year when the UN released a report calling for more research into endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs). Citing a lack of knowledge on the subject, the report highlighted links between exposure to EDCs (which it said are in many household cleaners) and health problems such as breast and prostate cancer. (You can read more about EDCs here.)

In terms of labelling, the national industry body for household cleaners, Accord, took a good first step in 2011 with the launch of “What’s in it?”, a voluntary disclosure initiative. However, this scheme doesn’t require manufacturers to put the ingredients on the bottle. Manufacturers can choose to disclose this on a website instead, and all signatories to the initiative included in our investigation did.



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