"Will That Kill My Kid?" Toxic Detergent Edition

A foil bag wakes me at an unreasonable hour. Kiddo, we don't eat chips for breakfast. Yes we can. They don't have sugar! 

After caffeinating it's too quiet, so I search and find him in the bathroom with the lights off. Why won't these cards glow in the dark? The box says they flash.

My son has learned to read labels, which means a lot of questions. Why does this say "not a toy"? What's "gluten-free"? What tests do animals take? What's non-toxic?

The answer to that last question is simple: basically everything we own. At snackdinner HQ, we've been squeezing non-toxic Play Doh through a non-toxic Classic Fun Factory. We've painted dozens of activity sheets with our non-toxic Do-a-Dot markers. We've made collages with school glue, glitter glue, and disappearing purple glue sticks, all non-toxic. We've filled our bubble machine with Gazillion's "'top secret', non-toxic Gazillion Bubbles solution." We've cleaned up all the non-toxin crayon marks, non-toxic finger paint drips, and non-toxic ink-pad stains from our table with Method's non-toxic granite cleaner. 

I buy Grab Green detergent because it smells heavenly. So heavenly, in fact, that I'm willing to tolerate less cleaning power at a premium price point. Grab Green's high cost is in part associated with its health status. The package for its Olive Leaf Stoneworks variety, for example, boasts a "non-toxic formula," separating it from other, more caustic brands.

But in sideways letters on the back of its gorgeous packaging, Grab Green also provides a this warning: "CAUTION: HARMFUL IF SWALLOWED. Keep out of reach of children and pets. If swallowed, drink plenty of water and contact a physician." A slightly different warning appears on Grab Green's lavender vanilla scent packaging: "CAUTION: HARMFUL IF SWALLOWED. KEEP OUT OF THE REACH OF CHILDREN. SKIN AND EYE IRRITANT."

How can something with a non-toxic formula be so dangerous? 

The non-toxic toxin

Toxins are regulated by the Federal Hazardous Substances Act, which requires a warning label on any product that "can produce personal injury or illness to humans when it is inhaled, swallowed, or absorbed through the skin." [A second act--the Labeling of Hazardous Art Materials Act--revised the FHSA to incorporate art materials.]

The warning label on my laundry detergent meets multiple requirements established by the FHSA: to include the word "caution" or "warning," a description of the main hazard(s) associated with the product, as well as the specific phrase "keep out of the reach of children." 

In other words, the warning indicates that my laundry detergent meets the federal definition of toxic. So how can it be toxic and non-toxic at the same time? 

What is a non-toxin?

The "toxic" category includes a wide array of substances that might, for example, combust or eat human flesh. "Toxic" is a scientific word identifying a substance that will cause injury or illness if it comes into contact with humans.

"Non-toxic" suggests the absence of a toxin, making "non-toxic" a huge category. But not every non-toxic consumer good gets labelled non-toxic. Look around your kitchen and bathroom and you'll notice a surprising lack of disclaimers. The cereal box doesn't boast of its non-toxic status, because all cereal is required to be non-toxic. Shampoo bottles tend not to make this claim either. Things that go in or on your body tend not to be labeled non-toxic.

That's because "non-toxic" is not a scientific or legal definition, but an advertising term designed to make consumers feel safe about using a product. If you're a cereal or shampoo manufacturer, you don't want to raise the specter of toxins to potential customers. But if you're a crayon manufacturer, or a laundry detergent manufacturer, you may want to offer additional reassurance that your product is safe to use. 

Neither the FHSA or the LHAMA have any requirements for "non-hazards." The acts have "not prohibited the use of the word non-toxic on substances that are not required to bear any cautionary labeling for hazards under the FHSA or LHAMA." If a product does not include any substance designated a toxin, its manufacturer may choose to label the product non-toxic. It seems that same lack of requirements allows a company to write "non-toxic formula" on its packaging, even if some of the ingredients in that formula may be toxic. Or maybe that's not strictly legal. When my Subscribe & Save delivery brought me more Grab Green this week, I noticed a packaging change: the lavender vanilla scent has stripped all "non-toxic" references from its package. 

Beware the non-toxic toxin

How much does this matter? It's not as though I was going to give my child a handful of these "non-toxic" pods to eat and/or rub in his eyes. Whether or not its technically legal to label a toxic product non-toxic, we can expect parents to behave with good sense when it comes to household cleaners. 

Don Draper makes the same point in the first episode of Mad Men. When meeting with Lucky Strike executives, Draper writes that the product is "toasted." The wholesome-sounding phrase implies that while all those other cigarettes are causing cancer, Lucky Strike is healthy, or at least safe. When one of Lucky Strike's executives notes that all cigarettes are toasted, Draper knows that doesn't matter: "No, everybody else's tobacco is poisonous. Lucky Strike's is toasted." 

All of those laundry detergents are dangerous, but this one is safe. All of those other diapers will harm your baby, but these ones will protect her. All of those other dishes will leech poison into your toddler, but these ones will ensure she gets the nutrition she needs and nothing more. All of those other crayons might kill the child who will inevitably eat them, but these won't.

Understanding "non-toxic" should have practical consequences for your next art supply run. Let's say you are reading two crayon boxes, one of which is labeled "non-toxic" but costs a dollar more than the a box of crayons without those words. Should you spend the extra dollar for the non-toxic crayons? Before you do, flip each box over and make sure it reads "Conforms to ASTM D 4236," which is the standard governing all art supplies sold in the U.S. If both boxes have that label, I just saved you a dollar. Thanks to the FHSA and the LHAMA, all household products and art supplies are held to the same standards. Legally, none of them can be "toxic" without telling you that they are. 

Understanding that "non-toxic" is a meaningless term should have more philosophical consequences for you too, making you more wary of the health claims made by luxury product brands.