Question: The manufacturer states that our new baby crib is safe. How do you know if a product is safe or not? Are there any government standards? I don't see any labels but I can smell some chemicals that I suspect are VOCs which are not healthy.
Answer: Your question shows deep concern for the lack of reliable labeling as well as present governmental standards in our country. It also addresses a health question of its own - are our noses adequate to determine safety, or must we rely on scientific instruments?
The truth about Safety Data Sheets (SDS)
In general, skepticism of ingredients labels is well founded, as many are not accurate, reliable or third party certified. Few manufacturers print the ingredients on the label like you find on food products. Instead, some of this information is listed on a company's website in the form of a Saftey Data Sheet (SDS) or Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS). In addition to the ingredients, manufacturers are required for liability reasons to list any known hazards such as: volatile organic compounds (VOCs), carcinogens or other chemical hazards that might result from spills, fires, exposure to your skin or eyes, or ingested. SDS typically show what tests have been conducted on the product and what level of compliance to governmental standards they adhere to.
SDS are government forms voluntarily filled out by manufacturers for their employees, not for the consumer. These forms are not double checked by the government for accuracy, complete disclosure or certifications. Unfortunately, for consumers who are trying research what's best for their kids, SDS contain very technical language, and are not easy to read or comprehend unless you have a degree in chemistry. If you read an SDS and think you're getting all the information about a product, think again.
Our government has allowed manufacturers to withhold proprietary information about their products if that information is considered a "trade secret." They also allow manufacturers to withhold info if the chemicals amount to less than 1% of the total volume. And finally - and here's the kicker - they have exempted a chemical, i.e. if it is not a "known hazard" listed in the TSCA (Toxic Substance Control Act) of 1976 hazard's list, it is not required.
That list contains only a mere 200 chemicals and has not been updated in 35 years (although it has recently shown some major improvements). It's now well known that more than 90,000 chemicals are in use everyday in our society, and very few have been tested for their effects on humans. The rest have been grandfathered into the system as "not bad enough" to qualify as a hazardous chemical. A perfect example is acetone and ammonia which are examples of toxic productss that have been exempted from disclosure because they don't cause smog. There are hundreds of others that have been exempted a well and we will never know about it!
The current and sad state of chemical affairs.
This reality could (and probably should) make you upset or even angry. It's highly reminiscent of the misleading information regarding tobacco, asbestos, lead, formaldehyde, etc., which took decades to uncover. As always, manufacturers and government organizations claimed the product in question was safe, but time and many deaths proved that these claims were unfounded. As usual, it was up to the consumer to raise the red flag, contest the use of these chemicals and bring common sense to bear. Waiting for corporations or the government to label them properly and transparently could take lifetimes.
The lack of proper labeling of building materials and their enforcement means "buyer beware" and requires each consumer to do his or her own homework before buying or using any product.
In our opinion, consumers should not have to do hours of homework before buying a can of paint or a piece of furniture for their children. Products should not be allowed into this country or manufactured here if they can cause any harm to humans, plants or animals whatsoever. The burden of proof should be on the manufacturers to test the safety of every new or existing product, and that proof should be third party certified at their expense.
"Safety first" is our motto and should be everyone's priority when it comes to the manufacturing or use of any product. And if a company can't certify that their product is a "safe product," at the very least, it should disclose every chemical used so we can choose an alternative that's better. Every consumer has this right to know.
Defining what's safe for all is not easy and is often highly subjective. Whose testing can be relied upon and how much testing is enough? Testing just one drug, for example, before it can be sold on the open market can take years of triple blind studies and millions of dollars before the FDA approves it. And even then, many still have issues after it's released. Imagine the time and money it would take to test 90,000 chemicals for their effects on humans!
Our government claims they can't afford to do this testing; nor can they keep up with manufacturers who constantly change their formulas as well as their sources of materials. For many reasons that we can't go into here, corporations have not been held accountable. The net result is that consumers are not protected and are on their own.
So who or what can you trust?
In general, if it smells foul, it's better to stay away from it. After all, shouldn't we be able to trust our own noses? Chemically sensitive people, young children and the elderly can often smell dangerous chemicals better than others, but still, everyone has different levels of tolerance. A product that's considered acceptable to one person may be detrimental to another. Therefore, it's always wise to test for your own personal tolerance before using any natural or synthetic chemical.
Furthermore, VOCs sometimes flash off quickly and other times they can continue to emit hazardous fumes for months or even years. Even a small amount of toxic odor can be damaging over the long run. Most people who are chemically sensitive, for example, became that way due to exposure to a mild odor over a long period of time.
We recommend that even if a product has a green label guaranteed by some reputable organization, and even if it states on the label that it contains low or no VOCs, you still need to test. Until there are universal standards or organizations that guarantee a product to be safe and healthy, it's prudent to approach every new product, whether natural or synthetic, with extreme caution. It's unfortunate that we can't rely on manufacturer's SDS, green labels or EPA recommendations, but better safe than sorry.
For a more complete discussion about VOCs and Health check out IAQ and Your Health: A Deeper Look at VOCs and Formaldehyde Emissions.