Photo: Canada must act on toxic cleaning product ingredients

Canadians have the right to know about toxic chemicals in household cleaners. But no Canadian law requires manufacturers to disclose the full list of ingredients in those products or warn about chronic health and environmental hazards.

The Canada Consumer Product Safety Act became law in June 2011 and requires Canada's Minister of Health to establish a committee that provides "advice on matters in connection with the administration of this Act, including the labelling of consumer products" (sec. 67). The David Suzuki Foundation is calling on Minister Aglukkaq to convene this committee.

Lawless ingredient lists

In the absence of any regulatory requirement to list ingredients in household cleaners, the industry-led Consumer Ingredient Communication Initiative (CICI) provides shoppers with some information. Participating companies have agreed to list ingredients contained in their products either on their website, via a customer service number, or on the package label. This is a step in the right direction, but it has limitations:

  • There is no standard nomenclature for listing ingredients. Companies have a choice of four identification systems, so the same chemical could be listed under multiple names on different products.
  • Fragrance ingredients are listed only generically, or in reference to a list of all possible fragrance ingredients that is not product-specific.
  • Ingredients are not always listed on the package label, where they would be most useful to consumers, but instead only available online or upon request.
  • As a voluntary initiative, the CICI standard is not enforceable.

In contrast, Health Canada oversees regulatory standards for listing ingredients in personal care products (under Canada's Cosmetic Regulations). While there is room for improvement in the Cosmetic Regulations, its ingredient listing requirements offer a model that could be extended to household cleaning products.

Table 1 — Cosmetics versus cleaners

Canada's Cosmetic Regulations oblige manufacturers of personal care products to list ingredients on the package. There are no parallel requirements for household cleaners, even though some products are similar (e.g., "hand and dishes" soap vs. dishes soap).

Ingredient listing is mandatory under Health Canada's Cosmetic RegulationIngredient listing is voluntary if a company chooses to comply with the industry's Consumer Ingredient Communication Initiative.
Health Canada enforces the Cosmetic RegulationNo enforcement of the Consumer Ingredient Communication Initiative
Ingredients must be listed on the packageIngredients may be listed on the package, a website or over the phone upon request
Ingredients must be listed using a standard terminology (INCI)One of four terminology systems may be used
Manufacturer must notify Health Canada of ingredients and concentrationsNo ingredient notification requirements apply

Disinfectants and anti-bacterial cleaning products are generally regulated as either drugs or pest control products. The name and concentration of active ingredients (the anti-microbial agents) must then be listed. If only that requirement extended to all ingredients and all products!

Hazard labelling — what we haz and what we hazn't

Hazard labelling systems identify health and environmental hazards associated with specific ingredients in products. Canada's Consumer Chemicals and Container Regulation requires hazard labels that warn consumers about acute health hazards associated with a single or short-term exposure to consumer chemical products considered to be poisonous, corrosive, flammable and/or a quick skin-bonding adhesive. There is no parallel requirement in Canada for manufacturers to warn consumers about hazards associated with chronic, or long-term, exposure to chemicals, or about their environmental hazards.

Table 2 — Acute hazard warnings required for chemical products sold in Canada

Symbol & signal wordsPrimary hazard statements
Danger or CautionPoison
Extreme Danger, Danger or CautionVery Corrosive or Corrosive
Extreme Danger, Danger or CautionVery flammable; Flammable; Read instructions before using
CautionBonds skin instantly

Source: CCCR

European regulations are stronger

Europe has adopted a new labelling system that includes warning s about environmental and chronic health hazards. Starting in 2015, the Classification, Labelling and Packaging Regulation will apply to chemical "mixtures" sold in the European Union — including household cleaning products (depending on the concentration and classification of ingredients). A separate E.U. regulation already requires companies to disclose ingredients in detergents, including recognized allergens in fragrance mixtures.

Table 3 — Environmental and chronic hazard warnings required in Europe, but not in Canada

Symbol & signal wordsHazard statements
Danger or WarningCauses (or may cause) damage to organs through prolonged or repeated exposure;
May damage (or suspected of damaging) fertility or the unborn child;
May cause (or suspected of causing) cancer;
May cause (suspected of causing) genetic defects;
May cause allergy or asthma symptoms or breathing difficulties if inhaled
(none)May cause harm to breast-fed children
WarningMay cause an allergic skin reaction
WarningVery toxic to aquatic life; Toxic to aquatic life with long lasting effects
(none)Harmful to aquatic life with long lasting effects; May cause long lasting harmful effects to aquatic life; Hazardous to the Ozone layer

Source: EC Regulation No 1272/2008, Annex 1

Canada should clean up its act.

Canada's new Consumer Product Safety Act provides the Minister of Health with broad authority to regulate product labelling. The government should use this authority to standardize ingredient listing for household cleaning products and broaden hazard labelling requirements as Europe has done. As a starting point, the Minister should convene an advisory committee on product labelling, as required under the Act, without further delay.

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