Consumers Need Better Product Labels

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Tompkins Weekly April 18, 2011.
By Katie Kelly

Despite growing scientific evidence and public concern, toxic chemicals remain on the market and are commonly found in our homes, workplaces, everyday products, food and bodies. The federal law regulating chemicals in products, the Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976, is outdated and badly in need of an upgrade.  In fact, of the over 80,000 chemicals in commerce, only about 200 have been adequately screened for their safety.

Only five have been banned by the federal government, and none since 1990. And those chemicals don’t stay put. They come off on our hands, get into household dust, are found in indoor air, and end up in our bodies, where they can contribute to health problems. So, we find ourselves in a situation where many of the products on which we have come to rely are made with chemicals that could harm our health. Yet people broadly assume that if a product is for sale on a store shelf, it has been stringently examined for safety. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Studies have found heavy metals like cadmium and lead in children’s jewelry, brain-altering chemicals used as flame retardants in baby products and furniture, hormone-disrupting phthalates in vinyl shower curtains, asthma-triggering chemicals in fragrances and cleaners, and the list goes on. Many stores provide safer products – but how do any of us know what’s actually in there?

Navigating this sea of available products is already a large task, but it’s made more difficult when labels contain common words or claims that can be misleading, like ‘natural,’ ‘pure,’ and ‘safe.’ None of these words require meeting any specific standards; they can be used at will regardless of product contents. To compound the problem, many products (excluding food and cosmetics) aren’t required to list their ingredients. Lacking this information makes it incredibly difficult for individuals to make informed choices for their health and environment. Those of us who go through the effort of researching which chemicals to avoid are simply stuck if the ingredients aren’t even listed. In an effort toward transparency, some cleaning product companies have chosen voluntarily to list their ingredients. This makes it easier for consumers to know exactly what we’re buying. Others provide the information, but bury it inside their website, far away from the actual product labeling. (When choosing a product, stick with companies that fully disclose their ingredients, preferably on the product itself.)

Here in New York, though, we are on the verge of change. Advocates have been working with the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) to enforce a long-ignored set of NY regulations requiring cleaning products companies to disclose the ingredients they use and any related health concerns. This 33-year-old law is unique to New York, but has never been enforced. Should the DEC begin enforcement, it would be a huge first step towards requiring full disclosure of all ingredients in products. Moving forward with ingredient disclosure would also benefit consumers in other states, and build momentum for federal chemical policy reform. This chemical problem is systemic and widespread, and requires broader understanding and action. It’s not the case that manufacturers are trying to harm us, it’s simply that the last 35 years of research are not yet reflected in US law.

Please join me in helping spread the word and pushing for safer products.Take a moment to read the label, ask a question, or think about the product you are about to buy. We have the power to protect ourselves and make change happen in the broader government setting and marketplace. Together we can make a safer community for everyone.

Katie Kelly is an Ithaca resident and works as Campaign Coordinator for Clean New York (

Please contact her if you have questions or would like more information about these topics at or 734-646-2119.

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