Clean Gets Mean: Cleaning Products Industry Takes Aim at Earth-Friendly Dirt Busters
A simple mixture of vinegar, lemon juice and water may be a safe, non-toxic formula to clean your windows, but under a controversial new policy proposed by the California Environmental Protection Agency (Cal EPA), this is just one of hundreds of alternatives to potentially hazardous commercial products the public may never know about. And, say some regulators, the policy in and of itself could open the door to industry meddling in future environmental regulation.In what legislators and waste management officials across the state are calling a disturbing and highly questionable move, Cal EPA has proposed limiting what its agents are allowed to tell the public about safer substitutes to common chemical-based, hazardous household products like kitchen and bathroom cleaners, disinfectants and commercial pesticides."This is almost a First Amendment right. The public is concerned about health and the environment and what alternatives are out there," says Karen Feeney of the Santa Barbara Community Environmental Council. "Why shouldn't they use that [information] to make a choice for themselves?"Cal EPA's Safer Substitutes Policy, implemented for a one-year test period in November 1996, states that any public information distributed by the agency, or any of its departments, "be based on relevant and accurate data, and that any claims regarding household hazardous substances and/or safer substitutes shall be substantiated by reliable evidence which supports those claims." The policy further mandates that no recommendations be made for safer substitutes to commercial pesticides unless those substances are registered with the Department of Pesticide Regulation, even if that substance is as innocuous as beer put out in a bowl to trap snails and slugs.Cal EPA also requires that a peer review and technical advisory committee be established to identify past test information and to oversee the "relevancy, accuracy and appropriateness" of such information before listing any solutions as possible alternatives to hazardous household materials.The environmental agency maintains that its edict is aimed at protecting the public by distributing only that information about substitutions for commercial products proven to be reliable and safe. "We look at this as a way to promote safe alternatives, and we feel a good public policy has to have good information," says agency spokesperson Daven Oswalt, who adds that the proposal is all part of the agency's ongoing effort to "look at different ways and different methods to help protect the environment."The Safer Substitutes Policy requires that any alternatives mentioned in Cal EPA public education literature be cleared through a scientific review process or current data conducted for that solution, as well as indicate what, if any, significant health or environmental hazards the alternative may pose. Pouring boiling water down a clogged toilet, for example, could not be recommended as an alternative to using a toxic commercial drain cleaner unless the procedure had undergone scientific review, something regulators say is an unnecessary-and costly-burden.And despite Cal EPA's seemingly innocuous, or what one observer calls "mom and apple pie" language, local agencies are concerned with what they describe as vague and misleading definitions of terms like "relevant data" and "reliable evidence," and how they will translate into administrative action."On the surface the proposal looks very innocent, but if you really look at what it means and what it requires, it would be virtually impossible to get anything published about household hazards and/or safe substitutes," admits one Cal EPA official who spoke on the condition of anonymity.National ecology experts and environmental groups say they're worried that Cal EPA's actions could set a dangerous precedent, not only for state and local agencies, but throughout the country as well. And, while there is no direct link between Cal EPA's new policy and the manufacturers of conventional cleaning products, several such companies have worked actively on similar legislation here and in other states."Reining in state agencies sends a chilling effect down through local governments, and from local government this will get into the non-profit agencies," observes Michael Bender, executive director of the Vermont-based North American Hazardous Materials Management Association (NAHMA), a coalition of state and local government agencies dedicated to pollution prevention and the reduction of toxins in municipal waste streams.According to Bender, a state administrative policy limiting information to the public amounts to a voluntary gag on government's ability to keep its constituents informed, and only begs for future ramifications."This could really be taking away the ability for government officials from be able to distribute consumer information about pollution prevention programs and that is our real concern," Bender says. "We certainly support [the dissemination of] reliable information, but this is threatening a much bigger arena. If California goes, what can we say about the rest of the country?"Cal EPA denies it is influenced by industry interests, although officials admit it maintains open communication "with all organizations." Furthermore, they say the Safer Substitutes Policy would only impact those departments under the agency's control. "It would be for public education information material issued by Cal EPA," explains Oswalt. "The policy would only be intended to serve as guidance, not as a regulatory mandate."Many officials, however, find it particularly bewildering that Cal EPA's proposal potentially paralyzes government from doing exactly what the agency says it advocates-promoting ecologically sound practices. In 1989, riding the crest of environmental awareness stimulated by national calls to protect our natural resources, the California Integrated Waste Management Act (AB939) required that every city in the state develop a waste management program in order to reduce the pressure on burgeoning landfills by operating local collection, recycling and disposal facilities.Cities were also to design education programs to encourage source reduction, including promoting alternatives to hazardous household waste. "[Assembly Bill] 939 required there be a component in everyone's waste management plan trying to reduce the amount of household hazardous materials that are going to the landfill," says Sen. Byron Sher (D-Palo Alto), chairman of the Environmental Quality Committee and author of AB939. "The law also required the state waste management board, in consultation with the Department of Toxic Substances Control, develop a public information campaign about proper disposal of hazardous household [materials'] disposal, and could include recommendations for safer substitutes."In some communities like Monterey County, efforts were already underway prior to AB939 to tackle waste-stream overload through successful household hazardous waste disposal and reuse plans. According to Monterey Regional Waste Management District (MRWMD) officials, their nationally lauded Household Hazardous Waste Collection Program increased its collection of household hazardous material 1,500 percent in less than 10 years, with 29,625 gallons of material processed in FY 1995 alone.The success of programs like this, say local regulators, proves the public's desire for resources to make environmentally responsible choices. It also underlines the need for information like that which Cal EPA's Safer Substitute Policy potentially threatens.According to Monterey County Division of Environmental Health Chief Walter Wong, the locally distributed Household Hazardous Waste Wheel, which identifies common household dangers and safe alternatives, has been a huge success among county residents."If you can use something less toxic, then go ahead and use it. We intend to continue to encourage people to use less hazardous materials," says Wong.In San Francisco, the city's solid waste management program received more than 7,000 requests from residents over a six-month period for a brochure that offered suggestions for non-toxic substitutes to common commercial products. "For their own health and for the environment, there seems to be a genuine concern," says program director Karen Strandoo.This concern is not lost on manufacturers of common household cleaning products. According to Strandoo, Pleasanton-based Clorox Company contacted the city last year to discuss possible changes to their safer substitutes recommendations. "They were strongly urging us to work with them although it is kind of a mute issue," Strandoo says. "Our position has been to put [the information we list] out there for input, technical and other aspectsÉwe feel this information is readily available so we can put it out there. And what are the mechanisms to stop us?"And now, although local waste management regulators applaud Cal EPA for wanting to ensure the validity of any information it dispenses, they say they cannot dismiss suspicion that sooner or later, this policy would influence their ability to provide useful information about safe alternatives."Our concern is that a great deal of the funding comes from the state, even though they said they wouldn't pass [the restrictions] down to [local agencies], inevitably [state policy] always finds its way down," says Lesli Daniel of the Sonoma County Public Works Department.The Sonoma department is just one of 14 agencies from counties around the state which have written to Cal EPA objecting to the Safer Substitutes Policy. Opponents say the policy bears a disturbing semblance to an enemy of the past, 1995's SB176-one of several legislative attempts, in California and around the country, to restrict information about non-toxic alternatives to household hazardous materials.A letter from Sonoma to Cal EPA dated May 30, 1996, states: "[The Department] does not support limiting information about safer substitutes available to the public. The Agency opposed SB176, working toward its defeat. We are now concerned that CAl EPA is skirting the public forum of the legislature by developing an internal policy that sets a precedence that, we feel, is very likely to negatively impact local government programs and our efforts to protect public health and the environment."In 1995, state Senate Bill 176, authored by Sen. Alfred Alquist (D-San Jose), met a wall of opposition from influential bodies like the California League of Cities for what was perceived to be an industry-backed attempt to silence local and state government from promoting non-toxic alternatives to hazardous products. That bill used similar language as the new Cal EPA policy regarding information on safer substitutes, requiring that such information be "competent and reliable" and based on tests "or other evidence conducted and evaluated in a objective mannerÉ""This new policy looks an awful lot like the son or daughter of that bill that did not move through the legislation last year, a bill sponsored by [the Chemical Specialties Manufacturers Association] CSMA," says Sher. "It [seems like it] would pit local agencies up against the state. Local governments only want to do what is right, it would be a shame if that were to happen.""I think Cal EPA is overreaching here," agrees Assemblyman Fred Keeley (D-Boulder Creek), chairman of the state assembly's Budget Subcommittee on Resources, which funds Cal EPA. "Senate Bill 176 was defeated in the legislative arena and yet Cal EPA is seemingly trying to end-run that decision by taking this up themselves." Keeley says he is suspicious of the environmental agency's relationship with the chemical manufacturing industry and questions its influence on this proposal. He claims that committee findings on another Cal EPA branch, the Department of Pesticide Regulation, have revealed "to a very great degree they have a very close association with the pesticide industry they are trying to regulate."Officials around the state also say they were never notified of Cal EPA's new policy, giving themone more reason to suspect the agency has ulterior motives in taking this action. In fact, several people-including Monterey County officials, Keeley and Sher- said they had never heard about the policy until contacted by Coast Weekly.And despite Cal EPA's claims that the policy has been posted on the agency's Web site, and revealed "both in-house and with external stakeholders," Oswalt admits the agency, "didn't put out press releases on this one." Some local waste management officials are saying the whole deal feels like Dj Vu. "We'd been in the process of redoing our public education materials, but we put that on hold when [SB176] was out there," remembers Dave Myers of MRWMD. "To me, it sounded like a bill that came right out of Procter & Gamble or something. Here are these old household remedies, alternatives to some potentially more toxic products, information that a lot of jurisdictions have shared and we can't use it."Many alarmed observers also note that Cal EPA's proposal bears a striking resemblance to numerous state legislation attempts backed by the CSMA, a trade lobby based in Washington, DC representing industry heavyweights like Clorox, Procter & Gamble and Dow Chemical.Washington, Iowa, New Mexico, Arizona and Vermont have all had do wrestle with legislation this year concerning how much government should influence consumer ecological choices. Other attempts in New Jersey, Vermont and California in recent years to either limit what state and local government say about substitutes to non-toxic commercial products, or to redefine "household waste," have alerted state and local agencies to potential problems with what has been considered good public policy attempting to reduce toxicity in both solid waste streams and consumer habits."I think there is an organized attempt to place some kind of prohibition on the kind of information government agencies can provide about pollution prevention through consumer information," says Bender. "I think the manufacturers are getting more focused and making this more of a priority now. They have been consistently vocal in expressing their concerns about this."CSMA President Ralph Engel refused to comment on industry strategy regarding state legislation. But the trade association, and the Household and Industry Products Information Council (HIPIC)- which formed in 1994 to repute negative public perceptions-are quick to point out that inaccurate information listed in some municipal "safer substitutes" literature is not only damaging to their industry's reputation, but also to the health and safety of the consumer.Even waste management and environmental regulators agree that information about safer substitutes passed from agency to agency at regional conferences, and borrowed among states, can occasionally include inaccurate facts that may never have been checked. Originating from a municipal pamphlet from Hawaii, for example, borax has been commonly recommended as a substitution for commercial disinfectants. Many health officials now acknowledge that borax is inadequate for killing germs and bacteria, especially for public-serving entities like restaurants or school cafeterias."I saw one recipe that called for dissolving one part soap flakes in six cups of hot water and adding some pine oil, I'm not sure what this mix would do, but it is not going to disinfect anything," says CSMA's Engel."The public looks to the government to provide them with accurate information to ensure the safety of commercial products, something the manufacturers and government regulators go to great lengths to do," Engel continues. "That is not the case with home mixtures or alternative products. Beyond that, many of these recommendations from government agencies are inaccurate, ineffective and sometimes even dangerous."The Clorox Company has been a vocal proponent of legislation restricting substitutions information on eco-friendly cleaners. A spokeswoman for the company says Clorox continually looks to reformulate its products to protect both the health of the environment and of consumers, but adds that information like that distributed in some municipal waste management pamphlets lead the public to believe that all commercial products are bad."Drain opener is a good example," says Clorox's Sandy Sullivan. "It is vastly different today than the crystal drain opener products you used to buy. Those had an extremely high toxicity level, but the crystals have been replaced by a bleach product which only has a 2 percent toxicity level."I think there is a lot of misinformation about how dangerous these products are," Sullivan says. "These are designed to be safe, the formulas have been formulated from scientific testing."Advocates of safer alternatives agree that there is misinformation about both the effectiveness of some alternatives and the hazards of some commercial products and they say these inaccuracies should be addressed. "Not everything sold on the market is all that bad," says Sonoma's Daniel. "And I have changed some of what I have published because of CSMA concerns and I think the changes have been positive, they do have some points to make."But," Daniel adds, "I do feel uncomfortable with (Cal EPA's proposal) because it feels like a general attack. You're limiting the state's ability to say things and the state is really crucial to getting out information in many ways, it sets precedents, and it gets information out especially in rural areas."MRWMD's Myers says he is now concerned about what the state agency's policy would mean for the ability of local government to dispense information. "We have a great concern if [Cal EPA] implements this, because we have put out information over the past 10 years that contained information you could use to find out different kinds of non-toxic things to using [some commercial] cleaners."Regulators like Myers and MRWMD Engineer William Merry raise the $64 million question: Why now? "What is the problem they trying to fix? " asks Merry. "I haven't seen a problem in 10 years locally, what is the problem with telling someone they can use vinegar and water? I just don't see the need for this." Just why Cal EPA feels the necessity to implement this policy at this time remains a mystery. While inaccuracies have been reported in some state's literature, that doesn't appear to be the case in California. And officials here say their efforts to promote ecologically sound practices are successful, resulting in a 25 percent reduction in solid waste materials going into the general waste stream.Ecologists and environmentalists across the country also wonder what has instigated what they see as a nation-wide assault on policies that are working. Some speculate that the "green" movement must be viewed as a threat to industry worried about their profit shares. But chemical manufacturers, who deny profit shares have any thing to do with their legislative support, have long maintained their products are safe and say they intend to protect that claim even it means through law. "All along consumer household products are safe to use and safe for the environment," says Clorox's Sullivan. "When you talk about environmental impact, you need to be very specific about what is the problem. Don't throw out the baby with the bathwater.""There are some commercial products out there that are as safe as, if not safer than some home made recommendations, but that is not the point," argues Dave Galvin of the Washington Toxics Coalition which has been battling legislation aimed at restricting safer substitutes in that state. "The consumer must be able to make the best decision they can make. We feel local government must be in the business of providing that information." Sidebar: Don't Reach for the BleachHere are some safer alternatives.We all appreciate how convenient it is to just spray and wipe, tackle tough stains fast and disinfect as you clean, but the next time you're tempted to dump chemicals all over your counters, windows, carpet or furniture try some of these easy suggestions, and a little elbow grease. C'mon now, what would you prefer, sore elbows or toxic emissions wafting through your house?*To freshen a room: Open windows, put vanilla extract on a cotton ball and place somewhere inconspicuous, simmer clove or cinnamon stick in water, sprinkle baking soda and vacuum surface.*To polish wooden floors and furniture: Mix one part lemon juice to two parts linseed oil; rub with toothpaste to remove water stains.* To clean tile and counter surfaces: Fresh lemon, borax or baking soda can be rubbed into the area for a mild abrasive effect. Wipe shower tiles with a squeegee after showers.*To clean an oven (nothing makes this job easy!): Wipe oven often while still warm; use a baking soda and water paste and scrub with steel wool.*On a clogged drain: Pour 1/2 cup baking soda, followed by 1/2 cup vinegar, cover for 15 minutes and follow with two quarts of boiling water; use a plumbing snake to unplug obstruction. Prevent clogs by pouring a kettle of boiling water and/or use the baking soda/vinegar treatment on a regular basis.*For spots and stains: Blot up as much as possible while still wet, soak in cool water, try club soda, rubbing alcohol or a mixture of glycerin and liquid dishwashing detergent.Don't pour left-over cleaning agents or garage products down drains or into the garbage! The MRWMD's Drop and Shop Household Hazardous Waste Collection Program at the Monterey Peninsula Landfill, and one-day county collection events can take the stuff for you. Paints, thinners, pesticides, fertilizers, antifreeze, motor oil, cleaners, pool chemicals and art supplies can all be either reused by others, or disposed of safely. Call 384-5313 for more information.