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What’s under your kitchen sink?

You can never be too sure, considering that Canada’s labelling laws for household products are lax compared to elsewhere, environmental organizations say.

Suppose you want to do a mid-winter deep clean. You grab a bottle – “lemon-scented” perhaps, or “mountain breeze” – and flip it over to check the hazard symbols. That’s all you need to know, right?

Not according to advocates from Environmental Defence and the David Suzuki Foundation. And not according to the European Union.

The labelling of household cleaning products in Canada falls under the Consumer Chemicals and Containers Regulations (2001). Under these regulations, all manufacturers, distributors and importers of cleaning products sold to Canadian consumers must assess the risks of each product they sell, then display hazard symbols, warning statements, instructions and first-aid treatment on their products’ containers.

But this isn’t good enough, says Maggie MacDonald, toxic program manager for Environmental Defence. While hazard symbols used on consumer products do warn of acute hazards (chemicals that are toxic, corrosive, flammable, quick skin-bonding adhesives or sold in pressurized containers), they don’t align with labels proposed by the Globally Harmonised System of Classification and Labelling of Chemicals (GHS) – an intergovernmental system created by the United Nations that aims to create an internationally recognized standard for chemical labelling – which warns of chronic health risks such as organ toxicity, carcinogenicity and reproductive toxicity and environmental concerns.

This Globally Harmonised System of Classification and Labelling of Chemicals health hazard symbol is used through European Union. In Canada, it’s not required to appear on residential products, but only on chemical products used in industrial and workplace settings. Among the hazards it conveys are carcinogenicity and reproductive toxicity.

This puts us behind the European Union, which has adopted the GHS for both household and workplace products. And while Canada’s Workplace Hazardous Materials Information System (WHMIS) did incorporate the GHS in 2015, it only applies to chemical products used in industrial and workplace settings – not the ones you’ll wash your pillowcases or scrub your sinks with.

“Throughout our daily lives we’re exposed to chemicals in our cleaning products in quite intimate ways,” MacDonald says. “We wash our sheets with them, clean our counters, put them on our skin. … And you obviously want to know if any of these chemicals are immediately, acutely dangerous. But a lot of people use the same product day after day for weeks and you may not know the accumulative effects of the products. … That’s a lot to think about when you’re just trying to go about your daily routine.”

The GHS recognizes chronic health hazards including “germ cell mutagenicity,” “carcinogenicity,” “reproductive toxicity” and “specific target organ toxicity.” You can find these new symbols on WHMIS-labelled chemicals in the workplace, but you won’t find one in your own home.

“Pollution is a big health concern,” MacDonald says, “but because Canadians spend so much time indoors, indoor air quality is a big concern as well.”

When you use chemicals to clean your home, the chemical can sometimes linger, polluting indoor air quality. In 2009, researchers from the University of Washington, Battelle Memorial Institute and U.S. Environmental Production Agency identified 133 different volatile organic compounds (VOCs) emitted from or created by the mixing of 25 consumer products, including six cleaning products. Each of the products tested emitted between six and 20 VOCs, with limonene, alpha-pinene, beta-pinene and ethanol as some of the most prevalent compounds.

Companies also don’t have to divulge a list of ingredients to the public, save for hazardous ingredients at a concentration of 1 per cent or greater.

This Globally Harmonised System of Classification and Labelling of Chemicals symbol, used in the European Union, conveys environmental hazard. It is not used anywhere in Canada.

A 2012 survey conducted by the David Suzuki Foundation asked more than 10,500 participants to open their bathroom cabinets and try to find complete ingredient lists for the products they used to clean their homes every day, either on the back of the products themselves, on the company’s website or by phone. Of the 15,000 household cleaning products participants provided information for, only 42 per cent had a full ingredients list available.

The Canadian Consumer Specialty Products Association created the Consumer Ingredient Communication Initiative (CICI) in 2008, through which its 35 companies – including big-name brands such as Procter and Gamble and SC Johnson & Son – agreed to divulge lists of the ingredients in their products online, by phone or on the product container itself.

But Lindsay Coulter, who runs environmental initiatives for the David Suzuki Foundation, worries about leaving the listing of ingredients to a company’s discretion.

“I think [companies] will eventually have to be made to do it through legislation,” Coulter says. “You can’t just leave it up to corporate goodwill.”

So how can consumers be certain of what they’re scrubbing on their floors and countertops?

Coulter recommends making your own cleaning products, such as stainless-steel cleaner made of one tablespoon of olive oil and one tablespoon of vinegar, or all-purpose cleaning spray using hot water, liquid castile soap, borax and essential oil.

“Simplifying your cleaning products by making your own is much more affordable,” says Coulter, “and it gives peace of mind.”