Poor labelling of cleaning products makes environmental impact difficult to evaluate

Submitted by: Jean McKenzie, Wednesday, August 1, 2012

<p>Lack of labelling of common household cleaning products in South Africa makes it difficult for consumers to evaluate the likely environmental impacts of using these products (Image credit: <a href="http://www.123rf.com/photo_13665083_cleaning-items-in-plastic-basket-isolated-on-white.html">serezniy / 123RF Stock Photo</a>)</p>

Lack of labelling of common household cleaning products in South Africa makes it difficult for consumers to evaluate the likely environmental impacts of using these products (Image credit: serezniy / 123RF Stock Photo)

While “green” is often used as a selling point for household cleaning materials, there are still many environmentally harmful ingredients in the products used to clean our homes and offices.  As a result consumers need better information about cleaning agents to make informed choices and have  the knowledge to use products in a safe way.

No labelling requirements for cleaning products

The challenge for the average consumer is that for domestic cleaning products in South Africa there is no labelling legislation forcing suppliers to give detailed lists of ingredients or concentrations. There are some limited regulations for selected chemicals but on the whole phrases such as “contains among other things” or generic terms for ingredients such as “surfactants” are commonly found on the labels of the containers. This means there is little information available for the buyer to assess. Besides there being no strict legislation for the labels, manufacturers are also reluctant to put a list of ingredients on the container as often the products are reasonably simple to make and limiting the information about the ingredients maintains the secrecy of their formulation.

Recently the food labelling legislation in South Africa has been overhauled and the new R146 regulations require unambiguous labelling of food products in the country going forward. Clear details of ingredients will make consumers much more informed about what they eat. This has led to some discussion in the fast moving consumer goods sector about the potential revision of labelling for household cleaning products. However nothing has been planned for the immediate future.

Manufacturers of domestic cleaning products are however obliged to have materials safety data sheets (MSDS) available on request and these should contain information in a standard format detailing the physical and chemical properties of the product as well as toxicological and ecological data. Unfortunately this is not available for quick referral when purchasing the products.

Household bleach

Common household bleach is usually well labelled as it typically contains only one active ingredient, sodium hypochlorite. This is diluted with water to a concentration of somewhere between 2.5% and 5%. One of the most common South African brands of bleach has a heading “Environmental Information” on its label that states the product is broken down to harmless ingredients such as salt and oxygen. While this is true, it is misleading as the chemical processes which form these harmless products can cause serious damage since sodium hypochlorite is a strong oxidising agent. The MSDS of sodium hypochlorite itself states it may pose a potential hazard to plant and marine or aquatic life at high concentration and the EU classification states it is “Dangerous for the environment; Very toxic to aquatic organisms”. If sufficiently diluted, sodium hypochlorite, can be disposed of into the waste water system fairly safely.  As a result the potential harmfulness of bleach is decreased significantly because it is already a diluted solution of sodium hypochlorite and further dilution takes place during use followed by degradation of the sodium hypochlorite itself.   But it should be kept in mind that even a solution with a concentration of 2.5% to 5% if poured directly into a waterway with living plants or animals will certainly cause severe damage in the immediate area.

Dishwashing liquids

Dishwashing liquids in South Africa are often quite ambiguously labelled, providing very little information as to what chemicals are going down the drain with the dirty dishwater. A leading brand has one of the most generic descriptions possible stating that among other things the product contains “Anionic Detergents, Solubilisers, Colourants and Perfume”. Thus only the general class of chemicals has been supplied and even then not a comprehensive list. “Anionic Detergents” refers to a class of surfactants which are found in soaps, washing powders and other soap-like products. Generally surfactants consist of two components. The first component, called the tail, is usually a long hydrocarbon chain which is soluble in oil, but not water and the second component, the head, sits at the end of the chain and is hydrophilic (i.e. water soluble). It is these contrasting properties within a single molecule which allow surfactants to be used in water to remove oily substances.

Because both the head and tail can be a wide variety of components, surfactants cannot be universally characterised either as toxic or non-toxic, biodegradable or non-biodegradable, environmentally friendly or environmentally unfriendly. Their properties depend very much on the actual chemical groups which make up the surfactant. Few domestic cleaning products stipulate the components of the surfactant other than perhaps noting that the product contains “anionic surfactant” and “non-ionic surfactant” which refers to whether the hydrophilic head is negatively charged (anionic) or does not carry a charge (non-ionic). While many commonly used surfactants can be perfectly harmless and biodegradable, certain surfactants are known to be toxic and have potential long term harmful effects in the environment, especially with accumulation. Benzalkonium chloride for instance is known to be highly toxic to aquatic life. This cationic (positively charged) surfactant is used in many products such as clothes softeners, conditioners and even pharmaceuticals for its variety of properties which include not only softening but acting as a biocide. Concerns about the large concentrations of this chemical in waterways are not just for fish and other animals, but include worries as to its effect on natural bacteria in the water and possibly further impact on human health. Thus more detailed information about the actual surfactant being used is required to make an informed decision as to the environmental impact of a cleaning product. One surfactant is certainly not simply the same as another.

Thus, for consumers, choosing a safe, environmentally friendly cleaning agent is a challenging task, simply because of a lack of information on the labels of the majority of the products being sold. Engagement with a supplier to obtain the MSDS for the product and then further investigation into each component does certainly provide a better chance of making an informed choice. However this is a challenging option unlikely to be pursued by the average consumer.

Jean McKenzie (MSc Chemistry) is a director of SciStaff, a specialist scientific recruitment consultancy, and a freelance journalist. 

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Jean McKenzie