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

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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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CHOICE went shopping at Coles, Woolworths and Aldi, and rounded up 12 common multipurpose cleaners. Only three had detailed ingredient labelling on the package.

We assessed their disinfectant claims and found that each had differing claims as to how they work. Seven claim (or imply) to be hospital- or household-grade disinfectants, while five limit themselves to vague statements related to cleaning.

A disinfectant “kills” microorganisms as opposed to simply “removing” them. Any product that says it disinfects, even if it is just implied through claims such as “kills 99.9% of germs”, is subject to the TGA standard for disinfectants and required to pass performance tests. The rigour of those tests depends on the claims the product makes.

The standard also requires manufacturers of hospital- and household-grade disinfectants to label the quantity of the active ingredient on the bottle, but this may not always happen. The Ecostore Multi-Purpose Cleaner, for example, claims it’s “proven to kill key nasty germs such as Salmonella, E. coli, Staphylococcus, Pseudomonas and Enterococcus bacteria”, which implies it’s a disinfectant, yet isn’t labelled with the quantity of its active ingredient.


Hospital-grade disinfectant

  • Listed on the Australian Register of Therapeutic Goods (ARTG) and subject to TGA disinfectant standard 
  • Evidence for quality, safety and efficacy reviewed by TGA 
  • Must pass performance test for Pseudomonas aeruginosa, Proteus vulgaris, E. coli and S. aureus 
  • Must include quantity and name of the active ingredient on the bottle 
  • Possible claims include “kills germs” or any of the bacteria subject to the testing (above); claims must be supported by product testing

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Household/commercial grade disinfectant

  • Exempt from the ARTG but subject to the TGA disinfectant standard 
  • Not tested or reviewed by the TGA 
  • Must pass performance test for E. coli and S. aureus 
  • Must include quantity and name of the active ingredient on the bottle 
  • Possible claims include “kills germs” generally, or E. coli and S. aureus
  • Manufacturers “advised to hold evidence” of claims

 

Other surface sprays

  • Excluded from the ARTG and not subject to TGA disinfectant standard 
  • TGA performance tests not required; must be fit for purpose under the ACL
  • Claims limited to: removal of/reduces non-specific microorganisms to a sanitary level, an improvement in hygiene, or antibacterial action

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So how do these disinfectant guidelines work in practice?

The three main home brands of multipurpose cleaners we looked at make very different performance claims.

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Aldi’s Power Force Multi Purpose Cleaner is a hospital-grade disinfectant. Under the TGA standard, this product must pass tests to remove certain bacteria (see above), provide evidence for these claims, and undergo pre-market assessment for safety, efficacy and quality through the TGA. A hospital grade claim also requires the product to be listed on the ARTG.


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Coles Multi Purpose 4-in-1 Household Cleaner implies it is at least a household/commercial grade disinfectant by claiming it “kills 99.9% of germs”. It is subject to the TGA standard and it must pass an efficacy test. However, the evidence doesn’t need to be given to the TGA for assessment, and the manufacturer is only “advised to hold evidence” of the claims.

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Woolworths Homebrand Cleaner doesn’t claim to kill germs or call itself a disinfectant, and so isn’t subject to the TGA’s standard. It simply claims to be “tough on dirt and grime”. Regulation for these claims falls under Australian Consumer Law (ACL), where there‘s an onus on manufacturers to ensure products are safe, fit for purpose, and don’t make false or misleading claims.

03.Chemical biodegradability and safety

 

Being plant-based doesn’t make a cleaner inherently safer. Plant-based substances are among some of the most dangerous chemicals. As a rule of thumb, less hazardous products are milder but require more physical effort when used to clean.

In terms of health and safety, biodegradability is key to preventing the build-up of chemicals in the environment and our bodies, according to toxicologist Hugh Scobie. Of the cleaners we looked at, the following claim to be biodegradable according to the Australian standard:

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ONLINE_CleaningProducts_ProductOrangePower
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Aldi Powerforce
Orange Power 
Nifti
OzKleen
Mint Kleen 

Earth Choice

plant based chemicals biodegradability

Biodegradable standard

Many multipurpose cleaners claim to have a biodegradable surfactant (the active ingredients that help break down grease and oil). These are the most likely ingredients in a multipurpose cleaner to cause damage to our health or environment.

Products that claim they’re “readily biodegradable according to AS [Australian Standard] 4351” must ensure the product will break down in the environment within a certain time frame. But it’s easy to get caught out, as most substances will biodegrade eventually and products may claim they’re biodegradable without being readily so. You can’t know for sure how long a product claiming to be biodegradable will take to break down, nor how much.

How safe is my household cleaner?

To look at chemical safety, we asked toxicologist Dr Ian Musgrave to assess the chemical content of the 12 multipurpose cleaners in our investigation, based on the information supplied on the label or in the safety data sheets from the manufacturer. Dr Musgrave found most chemicals used have low toxicity, and for chemicals that are toxic, toxicity is low at the concentrations used in these cleaners, if used as directed.

Toxicity is defined by toxicologists as having no observed adverse effect, with the level of toxicity depending on the concentration of a substance and how it is used.

One of the cleaners in the investigation, Earth Choice, claimed to be “non-toxic”. Despite the toxicologists’ definition, there’s no agreed standard or definition for the term non-toxic. The ACCC says the common understanding of the term is that it “would not be poisonous or harmful to a person if they ingested it”. Given the lack of testing of many chemicals, proving such a claim is difficult.

Musgrave argues that alkyl polyglycosides, the active ingredient in the Earth Choice cleaner, “probably aren’t very toxic”, but points out he isn’t aware of any toxicity tests having been done on these chemicals. If used as directed it’s very unlikely the ingredients in the Earth Choice cleaner would have an adverse effect, but Musgrave would not guarantee the safety of drinking a whole bottle, as an inquisitive child might attempt to do. So in practice, "non-toxic" claims appear to be meaningless.

The upshot is that you should keep all household cleaning products safely out of reach of small children - including those that claim to be non-toxic.

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