Environment | Food and Health

Hidden household poisons

By : Julie Barlow

Consumers mistakenly assume that the Canadian government regulates the toxic substances present in cleaning and personal care products. Here’s what needs to be done to correct a situation that poses long-term dangers to consumers.

In 2012 the World Health Organization and the United Nations Environment Program released a study showing that chemicals in consumer products may be linked to increasing rates of breast, thyroid and prostate cancers. Yet seven years later, Canadians still don’t know what toxic chemicals are in the cleaning and personal care products they use every day.

The reason is alarmingly simple:

There is no regulation in Canada that requires companies to disclose the presence of potentially toxic chemicals in their products to the public, or even to Health Canada.”

Muhannad Malas, Toxics Program Manager at Environmental Defence

The report examines consumers’ attitudes about how labels could help them make informed decisions about the products they use.

Toronto-based Environmental Defense has been advocating stronger regulations for toxic substances since 1984. California passed a law regulating disclosure as early as 1986, but change is slow in Canada. “Over the past two decades, we haven’t really seen much improvement in transparency. What substances manufacturers put into the products people use every day is a complete black box for the consumer, whether it’s shampoos, soaps, body lotions and perfume, cleaning products or furniture (treated with flame retardants),” Malas said.

Consumers Want Transparency

Environmental Defence found there was broad agreement that consumers need more information. “We did national survey polling, and 92% of respondents said we need full disclosure and labelling of harmful chemicals in products. That’s a huge percentage. Even the pollster was surprised. They rarely get 92% answers to any question,” Malas declared.

What are the risks? Makeup, shampoos, furniture and household cleaners are known to contain chemicals such as formaldehyde, parabens, phthalates and flame retardants. These chemicals are linked to cancer, known to be hormone disrupting and can cause birth defects. A few companies, such as Proctor & Gamble, and SC Johnson & Son, have released ingredients lists on their websites, but the ingredients of personal care or cleaning products are rarely listed.

Canadian manufacturers of cleaning and personal care products resist the idea of listing ingredients on their labels.

In government consultations, industry representatives argue that customers complain that no one understands lists anyway, so why include them? But it’s not true. People want to know manufacturers are being fully transparent and they want to know exactly what’s in a product that poses a risk to their health.”

Muhannad Malas

The focus groups in the study show that there are many reasons why Canadians have not obliged manufacturers to be more transparent about the issue. Among the main ones: Canadians are not getting information about what’s in the products they use, they assume regulations are stricter than they are, and they are not aware of the risks the ingredients pose.

The focus groups in the Full Disclosure study revealed that on the whole, people trust that the government tests products sold in Canada for health risks. “Participants generally trusted that current Canadian laws mandate the rigorous testing of personal care and cleaning products.”  But that’s not the case. A 2016 audit by Canada’s Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development, who is appointed by the Office of the Auditor General, concluded that widely available products contain substances that are harmful. These include commonly used chemicals such as sulfates, parabens and oxybenzones.

What are the risks?

The other problem is Canadians’ perception of the nature of the risks. When we are talking about the health implications of personal care products, like hormone-disrupting chemicals linked to prostate cancer or breast cancer, in most cases, these happen very much later in life,” Malas says. “The risk still seems remote for many people.”

But the focus groups showed that people want to know both what’s in the products, and what ingredients they should be avoiding. This raises the question of education. The focus groups also made the point that merely having a product list wouldn’t be helpful. “People want to see the list, but for most people the chemicals don’t mean anything. Everything is written in small font and they are very complex chemical names that people don’t understand. You’d have to be a toxicologist to know what they are, what the risks associated with them are,” Malas said.

“People said what they wanted was someone to simplify those lists and give them the gist of what they need to know. People want it to be clearly visible so they can quickly understand what’s at stake and look for an alternative.”

The focus groups in the Full Disclosure study showed that if manufacturers were required to list ingredients on products, the media could play an important role in raising awareness about harmful chemicals.

When people hear in the media that a particular product has a certain chemical that may have health or environmental costs, that’s when they become more curious about exploring the issue and reading about it more deeply. But how can consumers know that cleaning and personal care products have health risks at all if no one knows what’s in them?”

Muhannad Malas

The Case of California

Although it’s not an easy problem to solve, other jurisdictions have at least tried. In 1986, California passed Proposition 65, a law that requires manufacturers to put warning statements on products that contain one or more of a number of chemicals known to cause cancer, birth defects or reproductive harm. These labelling regulations have actually prompted manufacturers to produce safer products. Full Disclosure found that “To avoid requiring warning labels on their products, many manufacturers reformulated their products to remove toxic ingredients.”

Other than California, New York is the only other state that has passed legislation on the issue. California has just finalized new rules for cleaning products, the California Cleaning Product Right to Know Act, passed in 2017. This law requires manufacturers to put the entire list of ingredients on the label or online, including non-active ones (and if the list is incomplete, the label must include the web address of where the information can be found). “These two new pieces of legislation are the most modern and best models for Canada to follow,” Muhannad Malas declared.

Environmental Defence has concluded that voluntary programs requiring manufacturers to disclose the ingredients of cleaning and personal care products are not sufficient. Full Disclosure quotes a 2014 survey by the Suzuki Foundation that found that of 15,000 products, ingredients were listed on less than 50%, and 25% had unsubstantiated “green claims.”

However, there are recent signs of progress. Following a 16-month review of the Canadian Environmental Protection Act (CEPA), Canada’s Minister of Environment and Climate Change, Catherine McKenna, made a commitment to explore labelling as a way of addressing the problem of exposure.Basically the government is committing to exploring labelling. The question is how those labels should happen. We are asking that every product be fully transparent about what’s in it. And every product needs to highlight the concerning products in it. The question is how those will be disclosed whether on the product or online, large or small font. Those are part of a discussion to come once there’s a government that’s willing to follow up on this.”


The study

In January 2017, the association Environmental Defence published the study Full Disclosure: The case for stronger household product labelling, Produced with financial support from Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada, the study was aimed at determining whether Canadians were aware that the cleaning and personal care products they were using could cause cancer, reproductive health issues or endocrine (hormone) disruption.

The study, based on discussion groups and a survey carried out by Toronto-based Environics Research, showed that Canadians are poorly informed about the risks posed by these products and mistakenly assume that the government tests their safety. The study also examines the problems associated with providing information about ingredients on labels, particularly as regards how well the public understands the risks associated with these substances. Finally, the report examines existing policies on health warning labels and recommends that the Canadian government begin by following the example of California, which passed legislation requiring ingredients to be listed more than three decades ago.