Consumers will get a newly detailed look at exactly what's in common household cleansers, as regulators plan to start enforcing a nearly 40-year-old state law that would force manufacturers to reveal their products' contents.
The move comes amid growing scrutiny of the chemicals that make up consumer goods. Possibly the only measures of their kind in the country, the 1971 New York law and related regulations call for manufacturers to provide ingredient lists and research on the products' health and environmental effects.
"Due to increased public interest in such information, I have decided to begin the process of implementing the department's authority to require" the disclosures for all household and commercial cleaning products sold in New York, state Department of Environmental Conservation Commissioner Alexander B. Grannis told the environmental law group Earthjustice in a Sept. 3 letter.
The group and other environmental and health advocates unsuccessfully sued several cleanser manufacturers last year to try to get information under the venerable but little-used law.
Some companies have voluntarily sent data to the DEC. But the agency historically hasn't demanded the information, saying the law just allows — not requires — it to be collected and made publicly available.
The format, timeframe and other details for the disclosures are yet to be determined. Grannis has asked environmental advocates, cleanser manufacturers and state officials to an Oct. 6 meeting to start discussing the details.
While the New York law affects only the state, advocates hope it will help spur broader changes in the chemicals in cleaners and other products.
"(The information) will be available to everybody in the country," said Deborah Goldberg, an Earthjustice lawyer. "One hopes that by having this disclosure, there will be an incentive for these companies to start developing greener cleaning products."
The cleanser industry says fears about potential health dangers lurking in its products are off-base, and trade groups note that manufacturers recently stepped up voluntary disclosures of product ingredients.
Federal environmental laws don't require ingredient lists for most household cleaning products. The Consumer Product Safety Commission requires hazard warning labels on some cleansers, and the National Institutes of Health offer some health and safety information for hundreds of cleaning products, drawn from data gathered for industrial use.
Some studies have linked cleaning product components to asthma, antibiotic resistance, hormone changes and other health problems.
The cleanser industry's major trade group, the American Cleaning Institute, says the research is flawed, and the products are safe if used correctly.
The group, until June called the Soap and Detergent Association, also notes that cleaning can serve an important function in protecting human health by helping stop the spread of disease.
Industry groups unveiled their own ingredient-listing initiative this year, offering information on participating manufacturers' websites. Some 99 percent of American Cleaning Institute members' thousands of products are now included, spokesman Brian Sansoni said Thursday.
"We think it's working, and the bottom line is: Consumers have more access to cleaning product information than ever," he said.
Environmental advocates applauded the disclosures but said they were too vague and voluntary.
The New York law and subsequent regulations authorized the DEC to make manufacturers detail household cleaning products' ingredients, as well as any company-led research on the products' health and environmental effects.
"No consumer wishing to purchase a detergent for washing of clothes or dishes or for cleaning the human body, can realistically gauge the detrimental effects of such products unless informed as to the ingredients of the product," then-Gov. Nelson Rockefeller wrote in signing it. The law, he said, would "provide the consumer with meaningful information."
It was the only such law Earthjustice attorneys found in searching the country for tools to prod more disclosures, Goldberg said.