It goes without saying that for products to be sustainable they must be safe to use and safe for the environment. And you can be confident that the cleaning products you buy are thoroughly assessed to ensure they are exactly that.
By law, manufacturers must make sure the products they sell are safe for people to use, provided they are used correctly and according to the instructions. If a product is found to be unsafe, manufacturers must take it off the market.
There are also regulations that require systematic risk assessment of ingredients for both people and the environment, and if ingredients are shown to pose risks that cannot be controlled when used in products they will be banned.
It’s important when thinking about safety to remember the difference between hazard and risk. Most things have hazards - even vinegar and lemons - in that they could cause harm in certain circumstances. They’re safe enough to eat, but only in small doses, and you should not squirt them in your eye. What matters for safety is that things should not pose any real risk of harm when you use them normally.
If products have hazards, they are labelled so you are aware and they carry instructions so you can use them safely. And if lemons had to be labelled like cleaning products do, they would have to carry a corrosive warning!
So cleaning in a way that’s safe for people and for the eco-system isn’t at all difficult. If you follow the instructions, you don’t need to worry that what you’re using is a problem.
Manufacturers confirm that their products are safe before they are put on the market by conducting a systematic risk assessment. Firstly, they consider any hazardous properties of each ingredient. This might sound scary, but most things as pure substances have hazards. The important thing is that harm can only result if you are exposed to a large enough dose.
Secondly, they calculate what level of exposure people might have to the product depending on the way it's used. Calculations cover all routes of exposure - via the skin and through the air being the main ones. Even the way it might easily be misused is taken into account. The product only goes on the market if there are wide safety margins between the level of exposure that users might experience, and the levels at which some harmful effect might start to occur. It's rather like working out the safe dose of a medicine, and then ensuring the dose anyone gets is well below the safe dose.
It's a similar process to check that products will cause no harm to the environment. With cleaning products, which mainly go down the drain after use, the greatest potential for some harmful impact is naturally on rivers. The first step is to calculate what levels of each ingredient will be present in sewage flowing into sewage works. From a knowledge of how the ingredient is 'biodegraded', or otherwise broken down or removed during sewage treatment, you can then work out how much might be left in the sewage effluent. After sewage treatment, the amounts entering rivers will be very low but you can calculate what levels there might be in rivers when the product is in widespread use. Comparing those levels with the levels which might harm life in the river, makes it possible to check there's no risk of harm to aquatic life in the water. Similar calculations can be done for septic tanks.
Aquatic life is the first focus when risk assessing cleaning product ingredients for the environment, but possible impacts on sediments or soil-dwelling organisms are also checked in a similar fashion, as is whether there is any possibility of effects when river water is purified and re-used for drinking.
Though manufacturers of cleaning products have been checking the safety of their products in this way for decades, the systematic checking of substances used in all kinds of products is now required by EU law. These laws also set out in great detail how the calculations are to be done to make sure everyone can have confidence in the results.
If a cleaning product has hazards that might cause problems if not properly used, the law requires manufacturers to use standard warning labels and phrases on the packaging. More information about warning labels, and about changes on the way from new legislation, is available here. These are quite familiar sights on all kinds of products and warn if a product is irritant to the skin or corrosive, is flammable or dangerous for the environment. This allows you to bear this in mind when handling, storing and using the product so it's always safe.
Irritant warning symbol (Example on the left)
In addition to these legally required labels about specific hazards of the products, manufacturers have developed an additional set of visual tips about how to use the product safely - one standard set for use throughout Europe.
Keep Away From Children Symbol (Example on the left)
The Charter for Sustainable Cleaning encourages the use of these pictures on relevant products and any product using the Charter logo must carry all appropriate pictures.
Warnings about hazards, and pictures about how to use products safely are valuable, especially as an ever present reminder for products you buy all the time. But anyone interested in safe and sustainable cleaning must read the instructions! Instructions can convey far more, and in a more relevant and helpful way, than symbols ever can and they really are the key to being confident your cleaning is safe for you and the planet.
Did you know the facts behind this common myth?
Myth: Chemicals in cleaning products can harm your health
Fact: Properly formulated cleaning products and air fresheners do not harm people’s health when used as directed. They are regulated and risk-assessed to make sure this does not happen.
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