People use detergents and cleansers every day, yet the contents of many common household products -- including potentially harmful chemicals -- remain a mystery to most consumers.
That should change soon, as New York State moves to enforce an unusual state law that requires manufacturers to disclose cleaning product ingredients.
The state Department of Environmental Conservation is working on a draft plan, due out early next year, that will detail what kind of information will be collected and how to give consumers the results, which could include how the chemicals affect human and environmental health.
In the meantime, many corporations have begun voluntarily posting product ingredients on their websites to try to head off proposals in Congress for tougher disclosure, including listing ingredients on labels.
The shift toward greater transparency follows campaigns by consumer and environmental advocates who say shoppers have a right to know what chemicals are stored beneath their kitchen sinks.
Of particular concern: a handful of common ingredients, such as monoethanolamine, which some studies say can trigger respiratory problems. Other chemicals may threaten fish and aquatic life after disposal, advocates said.
"They bring these products into their homes, they use it on their countertops and around their food," said Karen Joy Miller, president of the Huntington Breast Cancer Action Coalition. "While we're taking the grime away, we could be causing more serious harm."
Manufacturers say their products undergo extensive testing to make sure they don't harm consumers.
"These products are safe when used as directed," said Brian Sansoni, a spokesman for the American Cleaning Institute, which represents product manufacturers.
The changes afoot in New York stem from the DEC's decision to exercise authority granted in a 1971 state law that the agency had not chosen to act on until this year. Agency spokeswoman Maureen Wren said the switch came because of heightened interest in household cleaner ingredients.
The disclosure provision appears to be unique to New York law.
Last year, the environmental advocacy group Earthjustice sued Procter & Gamble, Colgate-Palmolive and other manufacturers, arguing the New York law required them to disclose product ingredients. The lawsuit was dismissed, though the group could still appeal.
"It got the issue on the radar screen," said Deborah Goldberg, an Earthjustice attorney in New York. Now, she said, "we'd like to see the DEC connect the dots between the ingredients and the potential health effects."