If wary of chemicals, make own cleaners

Posted Aug. 08, 2010, at 10:24 p.m.

Last week we looked at some common household products and their possible impact on our health. We noted that some studies have suggested links between the chemicals in some cleaners and serious respiratory and other health problems.

The makers of the billions of dollars’ worth of products we use every year assure us they are safe “when used as directed.” Such claims do little to assure critics, who point to cleaning liquids they say are formulated to look and smell like treats; critics say children often suffer as a result.

The brightly colored, sweet-smelling concoctions that catch the little one’s eye usually come in spray bottles, often without safety caps. Toddlers quickly figure out how to work them and swallow the contents. With ammonia and bleach among possible ingredients, thousands of youngsters go to emergency rooms every year for treatment of cleaner ingestion.

Critics don’t stop at cleaning products. Many of them are calling for an overhaul of the way government regulates the industries that produce our favorite products, arguing that current laws basically allow industry to regulate itself.

Take Kellogg’s recall this summer of Froot Loops, Corn Pops, Apple Jacks and Honey Smacks because of a problem with the packaging. Some consumers said they felt nauseous or suffered diarrhea after detecting a strange taste and smell.

The company said experts it hired found “no harmful material” in its products. However, federal regulators have questions about the chemical 2-methylnapthalene. The Washington Post reported recently that the Food and Drug Administration, FDA, has no scientific data on human health impacts. The paper also said the Environmental Protection Agency has been asking producers of the chemical for basic health and safety data for the past 16 years.

Those who simply don’t trust manufacturers make their own cleaning products without the harmful stuff in them. A ½ teaspoonful of mineral oil in a ¼ cup of lemon juice or vinegar makes a decent, nontoxic furniture polish (for more recipes, visit www.mrscleanusa.com). Women’s Voices for the Earth (www.womenandenvironment.org) promotes “green parties” where people make their own green products.

The more vocal critics are calling for stricter government regulation of the chemical industry. They argue that consumers should not have to scrutinize labels for toxic ingredients; they would prefer that harmful things be left out of all consumer goods.

Bills pending in Congress would require companies to prove chemicals are safe before they’re used in products. Health and safety assessments of existing chemicals would also be required. Industry officials agree the law needs updating but worry about harming innovation and creativity.

Until anything changes, we urge consumers to use caution. Read labels carefully and avoid any products containing ingredients you consider harmful (visit http://householdproducts.nlm.nih.gov, the Federal Health and Human Services Department website for help). Try making your own substitutes, and keep cleaners and other potentially harmful products out of the hands of children.

Consumer Forum is a collaboration of the Bangor Daily News and Northeast CONTACT, Maine’s membership-funded, nonprofit consumer organization. Individual and business memberships are available at modest rates. For assistance with consumer-related issues, including consumer fraud and identity theft, or for information, write: Consumer Forum, P.O. Box 486, Brewer 04412, or go to http://necontact.wordpress.com.

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