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Phasing out Phthalates & Clearing the Air

Frances Beinecke

Posted March 12, 2009 in Health and the Environment

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SC Johnson, the maker of some of the world's most popular household cleaning products, has just announced two bold steps that will help consumers make healthier choices. First, the company will provide ingredient information for all of its air care and home cleaning products and second, it will phase out its remaining use of phthalates, a class of hazardous chemicals.  Now that SC Johnson has shown real leadership in committing to a consumer's right to know, we hope other companies will follow. 

Putting the names of chemical ingredients on air fresheners or bathroom cleaners doesn't mean those ingredients have been studied and found to be safe. But it is the critical first step in the process. Once we know what is commonly being used, we can start assessing its safety. And most important, consumers can make informed decisions.

Take phthalates for instance. Phthalates are commonly used to make plastic more flexible or carry fragrance in products, yet these chemicals may disrupt hormone functioning, cause abnormalities in sexual organs, and lead to male infertility. While the European Union has laws banning the use of certain phthalates, here in America, manufactures don't even have to list them on their labels.

When NRDC public health specialists were trying to identify phthalates in air fresheners, we had to send the products to a lab and pay for elaborate testing. Even the EPA is in the dark. Last year, NRDC asked the agency to take action on phthalates in air fresheners, but the agency admitted it had no idea what was in those products.

SC Johnson's recent announcement will help change that. Not only will consumers know SC Johnson products are free of phthalates (as of 2012), but now they can find out which ingredients are in the cleaners and air fresheners they use by reading the labels, going to a website (in English and Spanish), or using a toll-free number.

What is promising to me is that SC Johnson has made this move voluntarily, after NRDC raised the issue of phthalates in air fresheners last year. It's also promising that this move could signal a broader response to the public opposition to lack of information and unsafe chemicals in household products. Public concern is starting to move not only individual companies like SC Johnson, but the marketplace as a whole, as well as public policy (including a Congressional ban on six phthalates in toys and children's products, and various state laws).

People who buy SC Johnson products let the company know they were concerned about ingredients and wanted more information. The company's response is a testament to the power of consumers to make a difference.

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Switchboard is the staff blog of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the nation’s most effective environmental group. For more about our work, including in-depth policy documents, action alerts and ways you can contribute, visit NRDC.org.

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