Deep green in color and with an aroma of fresh sassafras, Simple Green is a popular household cleaner marketed to environmentally concerned consumers. It bills itself as nontoxic, the ''safer alternative" to other cleaners.
But one of Simple Green's key ingredients is the same toxic solvent that can be found in traditional all-purpose cleaners such as Formula 409 and Windex, a fact that consumers cannot discern from the products' labels.
Demand for environmentally friendly products is increasing, but consumers cannot be sure that what's inside the bottle matches the promises on the label. While Canada and the European Union have government-sponsored criteria for so-called green products, the United States lags far behind, especially for products used in homes every day. Product labels promise cleaners that are natural, nontoxic, environmentally preferred, or hypoallergenic, but in the United States there is no government or industrywide agreement on what the terms mean.
''It's troubling . . . and incredibly confusing for consumers," said Urvashi Rangan, eco-labeling project director and scientist at Consumers Union, a nonprofit group that publishes Consumer Reports. She started the website www.eco-labels.org four years ago to help consumers navigate terminology on product labels.
''It's misleading to the people because they think these products won't cause them harm," Rangan said. ''But the terms they base that decision on may not mean anything."
Officials from California-based Sunshine Makers, which makes Simple Green, stand by their claims, which they say are backed by more than $3 million of testing.
''We are proud of our data," said Milt Krause, the company's vice president of research and development as well as environmental technology. ''Simple Green is safe."
But when asked what makes Simple Green a safer alternative to toxic cleaners, solvents, and bleaches, as its label states, Krause declined to be specific. ''This is tough," he said, ''because it's proprietary."
Once, consumers were wooed by ''extra strength" and ''double action" claims on products. But over the past 25 years, environmental claims began appearing on labels as marketing surveys indicated that consumers also were eager to help save the earth. These early products, from recycled paper towels to phosphate-free laundry detergents, were often more expensive and less effective than existing products.
In the 1990s, Hefty's degradable garbage bags came under fire because they did not decompose as advertised. Other so-called greenwashing scandals followed, and many consumers returned to familiar brands.
Now, consumers are again eager to save the environment. Sales of organic and natural household cleaners, which include laundry and dishwashing detergents, rose from $140 million in 2000 to $290 million in 2004, according to the Nutrition Business Journal.
Several questionable claims have arisen in response to demand for eco-friendly products. Researchers at Scientific Certification Systems, a California-based company that verifies product claims in stores such as Home Depot and Whole Foods Market, found a plastic-and-steel carpenter's level marketed with claims that no old growth or rain forest wood was used in its manufacture. ''Some of the claims just don't make sense," said Kirsten Ritchie, director of environmental claims for SCS.
The United States has made strides in some areas of labeling, especially for energy-efficient products and organic food. But no clear standards exist for many claims on household-product labels. Manufacturers do not have to list ingredients on those product labels, although some companies do. Simple Green does not.
To find out what's really inside a cleaner, consumers must decipher label claims or request documents the company must publish that list federally named hazardous substances. The independent nonprofit group Green Seal in Washington, D.C., has developed criteria for green household cleaners, but the organization largely focuses on institutional cleaners and its seal is not widely recognized. Even so, Simple Green, which does not meet Green Seal's tough criteria for consumer household cleaners, is developing a formula to qualify, Krause said.
The secret formula for Simple Green's cleaner was created in the 1970s by former Chicago Bears football player Bruce FaBrizio and his father. One of the first environmentally friendly household cleaners on the market, it was sold to industrial customers for cleaning equipment and floors but soon targeted consumers. Simple Green's many products are used today, its website says, in millions of homes and by the US government. Last year, Simple Green sold at least $5.7 million of its all-purpose cleaners in US supermarkets, drugstores, and mass-merchandiser stores. according to Information Resources Inc.
Although no ingredients are on the label, consumers could request a Material Safety Data Sheet, the document that includes all federally listed toxic substances.
A key ingredient of Simple Green is butyl cellosolve, a substance considered toxic by the federal government that can be absorbed through the skin or inhaled, possibly destroying red blood cells, among other potential dangers. Concentrations of the solvent in household cleaners are not thought to pose an immediate danger to people. But some environmentalists insist the cleaners should not be labeled ''green" because the federal government considers butyl cellosolve toxic.
While company literature urges people to dilute Simple Green, it is sold in a spray bottle that some consumer advocates say promotes full-strength use. Owner FaBrizio used to drink a glass of the cleaner at trade shows to prove its safety. Krause said it is unfair to call a chemical mixture toxic based on one component. The formula, he said, was tested and found to be nontoxic by independent labs hired by Simple Green and verified by other labs.
Krause said Simple Green is not considered toxic by the Consumer Product Safety Commission, which oversees consumer products. The commission's job is to require product warning labels, largely about specific, immediate, and acute health harm. Simple Green is required to have a caution label under the guidelines because it is an eye irritant. The commission has not established standards for what nontoxic should mean, a spokesman said.
Simple Green encountered trouble over its nontoxic claim and general eco-friendly ads in the early 1990s. Then, rival company Clorox, which makes Formula 409, complained to the National Advertising Division of the Better Business Bureau that Simple Green's ads and labels were misleading in part, because the product contained butyl cellosolve.
© 2005 the Boston Globe