Green product concerns reek of junk science

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USA Today reports on a rather fragrant University of Washington study alleging that the most popular scented consumer products, including many "eco-friendly" ones, are chock full of “hazardous” chemicals that their labels fail to disclose. Published in yesterday’s Environmental Impact Assessment Review, the study authored by Anne C. Steinemann, Ph.D, analyzed the chemical content of 25 commonly used scented products, such as laundry detergent and air fresheners. The researchers detected 133 “undisclosed volatile organic chemicals” — a quarter of which are considered “hazardous” under at least one federal law. Dr. Steinemann concludes that the “green” products are, in fact, chemically comparable to conventional consumer products.

However, ACSH’s Dr. Josh Bloom is quick to clarify that “some of the chemicals on this study’s list come from lemons and pine trees, including limonene and alpha-pinene. I find it impossible to believe that there is anything harmful about either of these in cleaning products.”

ACSH’s Dr. Elizabeth Whelan is frustrated with the fact that this analysis did not examine chemical exposures — only the presence of the “hazardous” ingredients. “So what is the point of this study, then? It sounds more like a high-school science project than an academic investigation.”

ACSH’s Dr. Gilbert Ross suspects that it was published in the hopes of encouraging Congress to pass the Household Product Labeling Act, which would require manufacturers to list ingredients in air fresheners, soaps, laundry supplies and other consumer products. “But have any of these ingredients actually been shown to harm human beings?” he asks. “No. And who will benefit if these ingredients are listed? Consumers will start reading these labels, decide there are too many polysyllabic ingredients, and then decline to purchase them.”

“This kind of chemical labeling educates nobody about anything. It’s like accumulating 150 tons of bricks and saying it’s the same as a building,” adds Dr. Whelan. “This is just a data-dump.”

ACSH staffers give a hat-tip to Michael Shaw, who makes it clear in his blog Shaw’s Eco-Logic that he, too, could smell the junk science in this story from a mile away. He criticizes the journal and granting agencies responsible for publishing and funding a study that didn’t even test these chemicals against rodents: “She is merely cataloging a list of chemicals. Shame on Elsevier for publishing this tripe, and shame on the granting agencies for supporting it.”

In a related Wall Street Journal article, environmental marketing company TerraChoice also criticized the labeling practices for these green products, accusing manufacturers of “greenwashing” — advertising that makes unproven environmental claims. The marketing group found 12,061 unsubstantiated “green” claims made by more than 5,000 “green” consumer products sold in 34 U.S. and Canadian stores. Greenwashing offenses were found in 95 percent of the consumer products, including fake third party certifications and use of misleading language such as “all-natural.”

“This is no surprise. ‘Green’ and ‘eco-friendly’ have become marketing mantras, and such products confer no additional health or environmental benefits on anyone—not even rodents,” says Dr. Ross.