Not easy getting clean and green

A woman shops in the detergent section of a supermarket. A new study finds harmful chemicals in many household products, including those called "green."

Kai Ryssdal: You know that great smell of freshly cleaned sheets? Yeah, all that comfort might come with some trade-offs.

A peer-reviewed study out from the Silent Spring Institute today finds suspect chemicals in dozens of everyday household products, like detergents and cleaners. That part you could probably expect. Except the study found those chemicals even in products that pride themselves on being healthy or environmentally safe.

From the Marketplace Sustainability Desk, Eve Troeh reports on the challenge of going clean and green.


Eve Troeh: It's hard to give customers everything they want in a cleaning product. More people want to avoid chemicals, especially if they have kids or pets -- but they still want super-strong cleaning power. As a chemistry problem, it boils down to this:

James Ewell: How do you get the function you want without the unwanted characteristics?

James Ewell directs the chemicals program at the nonprofit, GreenBlue. He says some chemicals are especially tough to avoid, so the goal becomes making them less bad.

Ewell: Sometimes there are better options within a class of chemicals than others. So you're kind of choosing the best of the worst.

That's why you might see so-called "green" products show up in studies like this, he says. They have good intentions, but they also have to compromise.

Take one type of chemical measured in the study called phthalates. They help fragrance last longer. And cleaning products that want to be competitive need fragrance, says Maria Bailey with Marketing to Moms.

Maria Bailey: One of the things that women purchase products based on is the fact that they work. Companies have convinced us that strong odor and a good smell is a sign of clean.

Companies imply a lot about what's in their cleaning products, she says, with words like "natural," "free" or "clear" that don't necessarily mean anything. Scot Case at UL Environment says companies need transparency and better labels.

Scot Case: Don't let the consumer decide what's green. Actually look to the experts who've put together definitions and certifications to make it easier.

An ideal certification would not only consider the chemicals in a cleaning product, but also how well it scrubs or scours.

I'm Eve Troeh for Marketplace.

About the author

Eve Troeh is News Director at WWNO-FM in New Orleans, La., helping build the first public radio news department in the station’s 40-year history. She reported for the Marketplace Sustainability Desk from 2010 to 2013.

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