Wercs digs up the dirt on clean

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Courtesy of UL The WERCS

Latham firm tracks chemical compounds of household items so retailers can make safer products for today's eco-savvy consumers

LATHAM You don't know what's in that household cleaner underneath the sink but one local company does. And the work it does for the nation's largest retailers tracking chemical ingredients in thousands of items could push safer products onto store shelves across America.

Before any chemical product gets into Wal-Mart, Sears and Kmart, its manufacturers must come clean with what's inside to The Wercs, a private environmental compliance company based in the Capital Region since 1984.

The three mega-retailers are now poised to use The Wercs' information, gathered over the past three years, to rate 'greenness' of products before deciding what to sell, said Thomas Carter, a Wercs vice president.

This comes at a time when more consumers want products that are safe and environmentally sensitive, which can conflict with manufacturers' desire to keep ingredients secret out of fear of being copied by competitors. And retailers can find themselves the objects of fines for improperly handling or displaying chemical products not fully understood.

To balance these competing interests, The Wercs operates as a kind of 'lockbox' for industry, and shares its analysis but not the ingredient mix with the store chains.

'They don't want to know the ingredients, they want to know the implications of the ingredients,' Carter said during an interview in the company's British-American Boulevard offices. 'Say that a retailer like Wal-Mart has a choice between several different types of cleaners. With this new information, they will be able to see them ranked on their impact on the environment and health.'

The Wercs, which has computerized records on more than 80,000 chemical products from 2,000 producers, will screen products for ingredients with known or suspected human health and environmental risks. The findings are based on records from more than 3,000 local, state, federal and international oversight agencies, as well as published reports from private laboratories. 'This way, company buyers can choose which product ought to be stocked,' said Carter.

The ranking will include such areas as known or suspected carcinogens, endocrine disrupters, reproductive hazards and mutagenic risks. Health and environmental groups are concerned that some chemicals in household cleaners could contribute to asthma or respiratory problems, especially if consumers aren't aware of their presence.

A spokesman for Sears and Kmart, which signed up for The Wercs service last month, said it will lead to 'greener' choices for its customers.

'Sears Holdings is continuously looking for ways to improve safety and minimize our impact on the environment. Our relationship with The Wercs is another example of this commitment,' said company spokesman Kimberly Freely in a statement. 'Through this partnership, we feel strongly that we will gain an improved understanding of the chemical makeup of the consumer products sold in our stores.'

Wal-Mart declined comment; spokesman Kory Lundberg said the company was planning its own announcement.

It was leverage exacted by Wal-Mart over manufacturers that launched The Wercs' products chemical database three years ago, Carter said. 'Wal-Mart said it would not allow any products on its shelves without checking with us first,' he said. As for its suppliers, 'Some of these companies were not too happy about having to do that.'

Accordingly, The Wercs is not in the role of whistle-blower, and simply advises retailers on the potential problems a product's chemicals may entail, he said. It is up to the retailer whether to stock the product.

Federal law doesn't generally require manufacturers to disclose which chemicals are used in household cleaning products, though companies must include labels explaining any emergency warnings and instructions for first aid.

Carter said The Wercs' primary business was the creation of federally required Material Safety Data Sheets, which describe an individual chemical's known properties and health risks. These sheets are primarily used by manufacturers, shippers and retailers to stay informed on proper and legal handling, storage, display and disposal of a product.

'This is the information that a retailer has to know to avoid being fined,' Carter said.

The company was founded by Capital Region resident Lou Desorbo, and has grown to about 50 workers. It does not conduct its own product testing, but instead has created its own computerized analysis of products based on the findings by the assorted government regulators and private laboratories.

At a 2008 industry sustainability conference, Zach Freeze, head of Wal-Mart's 'chemical intensive product initiative' gave a Powerpoint presentation that described the goal of the company's Wercs-based 'chemical screening tool.' It would examine all chemicals against criteria for adverse impacts to human health and the environment 'to move away from the use of the most hazardous chemicals,' Freeze said.

The program, he added, would provide buyers and suppliers with 'a fully transparent tool (and) potentially reducing products that could pose environmental and/or health hazards.'

The fact the product data kept by The Wercs is only available to the retailers is what encourages manufacturers to reveal it, said Brian Sansoni, a spokesman for the Soap and Detergent Association, which represents manufacturers. 'This integrity is critical,' he said. 'If product information is disclosed, a business could be imperiled.'

Manufacturers, he said, could have a problem, however, with a retailer program that uses Wercs' chemical data to create a rating system that shows up on store shelves. 'Our companies want to make sure the assessment of their products are accurate, and do not want their product inappropriately described,' he said.

No federal standard regulates the terms 'green' or 'natural' as they apply to cleaning products.

Advocates pushing for public disclosure of cleaning chemical ingredients said the big retailers' push is worthwhile, but shouldn't be seen as the end of the road.

'It's laudable that companies are willing to take the initiative to make sure the products they sell are as safe as possible,' said Keri Powell, a lawyer with Earthjustice. 'When it is as large a company as Wal-Mart, that's powerful and important. But it does not take away the need for future government regulation and a system that is transparent to the public.'

In February, Earthjustice was among health and environmental groups that sued the state to enforce a forgotten 1970s state law to force the nation's largest makers of household cleaners to reveal chemicals ingredients to the state Department of Environmental Conservation.

As public pressure mounts for safer, more eco-friendly products, a few manufacturers of household cleaning products have begun disclosing the chemicals in some of their products. S.C. Johnson & Son Inc. last month launched a Web site to describe most ingredients for its Windex, Glade and Shout brands. Clorox Co. lists ingredients for its Formula 409 and other products on its Web site.

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