But Simple Green isn't simple. And critics complain it isn't so green, either. The familiar, dark-green all-purpose cleaner with the sassafras scent contains 2-butoxyethanol, a chemical that has damaged red blood cells in lab animals and "may be a carcinogen in humans," warns New Jersey's Department of Health and Human Services. When the nonprofit Environmental Working Group tested a variety of school cleaners, it found Simple Green spewed 2-butoxyethanol and 92 other chemicals into the air, including one linked to cancer (acetaldehyde) and another linked to both cancer and asthma (formaldehyde).
"While we would never claim that every air contaminant we measured in this study is harmful, it certainly seems unnecessary to expose a person to 93 different chemicals as part of ordinary cleaning, especially when many less-polluting options exist," says Rebecca Sutton, senior scientist for Environmental Working Group (EWG).
Simple Green's manufacturer is quick to dismiss any notion that its 35-year-old all-purpose cleaner isn't green. The formula "as a whole does not cause harm to people, animals, or environment," counters Carol E. Chapin, vice president of research and development for manufacturer Sunshine Makers Inc., via e-mail to Consumer Ally's Green Police (the emphasis was hers). Some chemicals revealed in the above test were found at levels barely above the point of detection, and the company since made some ingredient changes, she says. The company "does not knowingly formulate our products with formaldehyde or any of the other things EWG claimed are in our product, other than 2-butoxyethanol," and it will seek to move away from using 2-butoxyethanol and other so-called volatile organic compounds in the future, she says.
"However, we are not going to throw the baby out with the bathwater. We will be seeking alternative formula ingredients for which there is a great volume of scientific information, so that we don't choose ingredients that are untested and unknown." Until then, Chapin assures: "There is absolutely zero scientific evidence that shows that Simple Green harms red blood cells or causes cancer."
Suffice it to say that "green" doesn't always mean what you might think, particularly if you think it means "natural."
"The only ingredient in Simple Green that could be considered natural is water," states the FAQ page of the company's web site.
Some other surprises about Simple Green:
- There IS a separate natural line of Simple Green products -- yes, it's true, and this one earns third-party Green Seal certification, meaning it's green and it works. Called "Simple Green Naturals," this product line is harder to find (here, here and here are a few places that sell it). The company web site says that "Simple Green Naturals are 100% naturally derived, with ingredients originating from nature: chicory, coconut, corn, palm, naturally occurring minerals, salt and sugar, and water. Nothing else. Naturals are safer, effective products that offer: 100% natural ingredient sources..." All of which prompts Sutton of EWG to wonder why the company doesn't switch all of its products to a natural formula: "They obviously have a good product. I wish they could transfer their whole line to these safer alternatives." Chapin says there are no plans to switch to natural formulations.
- The commonplace Simple Green All-Purpose Cleaner comes in a spray bottle, which may lead you to assume you just point the nozzle and squeeze. But if you read the instructions, you'll notice it's a concentrate. You're supposed to dilute the liquid with lots of water, even for heavy cleaning. Sutton worries that consumers spray the full-strength concentrate for ordinary tasks. "Lots of people, including myself in the earlier years, will use it at that level -- which is not safe," Sutton says. A single exposure isn't going to bring on cancer, but her organization is concerned about the little-understood synergistic effect of chemicals of all sorts that consumers face in everyday life, including smog, vehicle exhaust, wood smoke, the onslaught of fragrances and so on. Cleaners don't have to be added to the mix.
- Like a lot of cleaners, ordinary Simple Green doesn't list its ingredients on the bottle (though "some disclosure of ingredients will be given on a case by case basis as required by physicians, veterinarians or highway safety agents," says the company's FAQs). This is expected to change: The state of New York promises to begin requiring companies to reveal the chemicals in household cleaners and any health risks posed. Full disclosure will force companies claiming to have green products to reveal what's inside. "Until they disclose, we don't know if it's green or just greenwash," says Deborah Goldberg, managing attorney for EarthJustice, which sued to force the disclosures in New York. "That's why this disclosure is important."
- You'll notice a Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval on ordinary Simple Green. What does it mean? "The seal means that the Good Housekeeping Institute has verified all usage instructions and claims on that product label. Maintaining the Good Housekeeping Seal requires a manufacturer to offer replacement or refund of defective product," states the cleaner's FAQs.
If you're looking for green cleaners verified by a third party to both work and to be green, you can check Green Seal. Unfortunately, you'll probably need to end up at an office supply store instead of a supermarket, as the handful of certified examples include Sustainable Earth by Staples Multi-Purpose Cleaner and Office Depot-brand Green All-Purpose Cleaner.
But the basic principle for cleaning the green way is to first try the most benign option, which may be ordinary white vinegar, and move up from there, if needed. Actually, plain water -- "an amazing solvent" -- is the first choice of Carole LeBlanc, former lab director of the Toxic Use Reduction Institute at University of Massachusetts-Lowell: "There are tons of times when I can use just water and a little bit of elbow grease." Dave Waddell, health and environmental investigator with King County Hazardous Waste Program in Seattle, cleans windows with a little white vinegar diluted in water. He cleans counter tops with a green dishwashing liquid and elbow grease. [Find some green cleaning recipes here.]
Waddell reserves Simple Green to clean the chain on his bike, as it's greener than ordinary solvents. "I do it outside and wear gloves," Waddell says of Simple Green. "I don't use very much."
(Editor's Note: Simple Green invites those who want to see the full answers to questions asked for this story to email firstname.lastname@example.org.