When you shop for cleaning supplies, brightly colored bottles advertise stain-removing powers or "whiter whites." But it’s hard to get clear information about what the chemical ingredients could do to your health or the environment. The Environmental Protection Agency is hoping to change that.
The EPA has revamped its environmental safety label, rebranding it as "Safer Choice." And the Burlington-based Seventh Generation is among the growing number of companies investing in the new logo.
In theory, the EPA already regulates all chemicals; so no products on the market today should be harmful. But historically, the Toxic Substance Control Act has limited what regulations the EPA could actually create and enforce.
Consider the recent findings of unsafe levels of PFOA in drinking water in Vermont, New York and New Hampshire. Or the EPA's attempt to ban a known carcinogen, asbestos, that was shot down by the courts in 1991.
Finding a safer alternative
So the EPA developed a voluntary program, where companies can pay to submit their chemicals to a review to earn the new Safer Choice logo on their product.
"This really came out of the fact that we were really struggling to figure out how to manage chemicals with a failed Toxic Substance Control Act," said Gina McCarthy, the top administrator at the EPA.
"We realized was that if we put a simple label on a product that people can see — we put that on a product that is safer, it's a safer choice for household products — that people will respond to that, that consumers will regulate with their dollars."
McCarthy says the Safer Choice logo has the full backing of EPA science.
"We are incredibly rigorous, and we're very demanding on this label, so it really is about making sure that it doesn’t have ingredients in it that we know are toxic, that we know are carcinogens or mutagens."
That means analyzing each ingredient for everything from impacts on human health to what effect it could have on aquatic creatures, like fish.
"If a chemical has data, which shows that it's got potential health effects for people or effects for the environment, we don't allow it to be used in program," says Clive Davies, who runs the Safer Choice program for the EPA.
Say a company wants to add a stain-fighting ingredient to their laundry detergent. Even if chemists can scientifically show that this chemical is not going to harm humans in low concentrations, if the chemical itself is a known hazard, it's not allowed to be used under the Safer Choice label.
That means some chemicals that are deemed safe under the conventional safety review process will never meet the Safer Choice criteria, says Davies.
"And that's tied really to the goal of our program, which is to provide incentives for truly safer chemistry. So that just because it's allowed at low level, doesn't mean it's safer. So we only allow the safest possible chemicals."
Not only that, but even if there isn't any data suggesting that a chemical is harmful, scientists analyze whether or not it is similar to known hazardous chemicals.
"We do not allow use of chemicals that might be structurally similar — just where testing may not have been done — but we make sure the chemicals that might come up as problematic in future are not allowed," says Davies.
The labeling program was originally created in the 1990s, under the name "Design for the Environment," but several years ago the EPA hired consultants to re-brand the logo for better recognition among consumers.
A label they can relate to
Martin Wolf, the director of sustainability for Seventh Generation, says the EPA's approach jibes with how the Vermont-based company has been developing chemical formulas for years. Wolf has been working in the field of "green" chemistry for close to 40 years, studying the impact of industrial chemicals on the environment and health.
"Prior to the Safer Choice logo, Seventh Generation shunned logos generally, because we felt we were making a product superior to any of the then-existing labels," says Wolf.
But Wolf says when the EPA rebranded the Safer Choice label a little over a year ago, his company felt the label was meaningful, both to consumers and from a science perspective.
So Seventh Generation had some of its products certified Safer Choice, including the "Free and Clear" laundry detergent and some detergent pods. The company also won a Safer Choice Partner of the Year Award.
To gain approval for a product to bear the logo, companies have to submit data sheets for each chemical in their product to a third-party reviewer for the EPA.
"That includes a toxicological, environmental, human health review of each ingredient that goes into your product," says Heidi Raatikainen, a compliance scientist at Seventh Generation. "They will review every single ingredient that is added to the product at any point in the supply chain."
"It is a very authentic and rational way to review chemicals," says Raatikainen. "One of the differences with the EPA Safer Choice from other certifications that I've seen is that they truly understand the chemical industry, and what the concerns are, and how the supply chain works, which is really key in terms of evaluating a product for the appropriate measures for health and safety."
Whose science defines 'safer'?
But Wolf says some in the industry don't like this approach, in part because certain chemicals they rely on would never meet the label requirements.
"And this concerns conventional industry because they want to be able to use some of the other chemicals because they have better technical properties, they might have lower cost, for whatever reason," says Wolf. "And then they will make their products useable in a way they deem to be safe, because of limited exposure."
By "limited exposure," Wolf is referring to the traditional method of evaluating risk of a chemical. Basically, some companies want to keep on with the status quo, where if a chemical is used in safe concentrations, it's allowed. This is how the new Toxic Substance Control Act passed this year evaluates chemicals.
"We believe a full risk-assessment is what gives the proper scientific review to situations like this," says Kathryn St. John, the head of communications for the American Chemistry Council, a group with hundreds of members ranging from small companies to larger ones such as Bayer, 3M, Dow and DuPont.
"Simply having a list of chemicals that are a hazard list or a blacklist of chemicals that shouldn't be included, doesn't take into consideration exposure," she says.
St. John says the American Chemistry Council filed those concerns with the EPA.
"It goes back to real-world exposure, so we think its really important to look at the full range of scientific evidence," says St. John. "And that's what a comprehensive risk assessment does. It helps you understand that chemicals can be used safely, and consumers can have a small amount of something in a product, and that its safe to use that product."
But scientists involved in developing the Safer Choice criteria contend that it's hard to control "exposure" in the real world. People don't always read labels and could use more than the recommended amount of a product. Or spills into the environment could happen.
Companies both small and large are taking notice of the label. Clorox won an EPA Safer Choice "Partner of the Year" award this year. And Walmart has pledged that it will strive to formulate its private brand products to meet the Safer Choice label.
In the last year alone, the EPA has seen a 30 percent increase in requests to be reviewed for the Safer Choice label. To date, more than 2,500 products have been approved to carry the label.
This report comes from the New England News Collaborative: Eight public media companies coming together to tell the story of a changing region, with support from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.