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Why Labels On Pesticides and Cleaning Products Got Easier To Understand

Updated on January 14, 2016
Bob Bamberg profile image

With 30 years in the pet supply industry, Bob's newspaper column deals with animal health, nutrition, behavior, regulation, and advocacy.

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New Rules Simplify Wording on Pesticides and Cleaners

Some of you may remember that “Read The Label First” campaign from the mid-1990s. It was a product of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in a new program known as the Consumer Labeling Initiative (CLI).

The CLI focused on indoor and outdoor pesticides, and household hard surface cleaners (i.e., floor and basin, tub and tile), some of which are registered antimicrobials or disinfectants.

To accomplish the goals of the CLI, the EPA encouraged the involvement of federal and state government agencies, private industry, public interest groups, and individual citizens. They took to heart the input of the general public, which resulted in significant changes to the vocabulary manufacturers used on labels.

By making label information easier to understand, the initiative was designed to encourage consumers to read entire labels before purchasing, using, storing and disposing of household chemicals. And boy, was that ever needed.

I owned a feed and grain store that sold stuff to kill things that harmed us or made our lives miserable, such as disease carrying insects and vermin, and weeds. And it seems that practically no one read the labels.

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Customers would complain that something didn’t work and they’d add, “And I even put it on a little heavy just to make sure.” That not only potentially harmed the environment and wasted product, it interfered with the product’s ability to break down and do the job.

What consumers considered to be product failure was, in fact, user error almost every time. The classic user error is the application of the weed n’ feed product that combines fertilizer with broad leaf weed control.

Designed to work through the leaves of the weed, not the roots, directions call for it to be applied to a wet lawn so that the product would stick to the weed. I can’t tell you how many homeowners, including those who weren’t my customers, complained that the product didn’t work, “and I even left the sprinkler on for a half hour to water it in.” Groan.

We always advised our customers on the proper use of products, emphasizing that they use the recommended application rate, irrigate or withhold water, etc. It just took a few seconds, but resulted in the desired outcome. But, not many stores do that nowadays.

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The "average Joe" Really Made a Difference

CHEMICAL NAMES. The public complained that those chemical names pretty much meant nothing because they couldn’t pronounce them, let alone understand them.

So the EPA encouraged manufacturers to use common names that were approved by the American National Standards Institute, and to work on common names for many more chemicals. As a result, for example, N-(phosphonomethyl)glycine became Glyphosate.

● INERT INGREDIENTS. Active ingredients kill or control pests while inert ingredients speak to the function or efficacy of the products, such as carriers or bonding agents. The public generally interpreted inert to mean “water,” “fillers,” “inactive,” etc. so the EPA asked manufacturers to change the nomenclature to “Other Ingredients.”

● STATEMENT OF PRACTICAL TREATMENT. When you accidentally swallow bad stuff or get it in your eyes or on your skin, time is often of the essence in treating the mishap. Hurrying through the label looking for FIRST AID and not finding it was identified as a problem. Therefore, the EPA encouraged manufacturers to change “Statement of Practical Treatment” to “First Aid”

● STORAGE AND DISPOSAL INFORMATION. There was no standardized information established, partly because communities throughout the country had their own ordinances pertaining to the storage and discarding of unused materials and empty containers.

So the CLI meant consulting with communities and initiative partners on how best to provide storage and disposal information that provides clear and appropriate directions to follow, no matter where you live.

Reading the label is the first step to choosing the right product, keeping people and pets safe, saving money and helping the environment. Now that labels have become a lot easier to understand, maybe folks will read them and follow instructions carefully.

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    • Bob Bamberg profile image
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      Bob Bamberg 4 years ago from Southeastern Massachusetts

      Growing up is an eye opener, is it not, peachpower? Suddenly we're held accountable. But, I think people just take too casual an attitude towards household chemicals; figuring that "if it wasn't safe, they wouldn't be able to sell it."

      But household chemicals are really no different from many other aspects of life...medicines, foods, skydiving, for instance. Used properly, they're safe...play fast and loose with them, and you're endangering yourself and possibly others. Nice to have you stop by, thanks for the comment and vote. Regards, Bob

    • peachpower profile image

      peachpower 4 years ago from Florida

      Loved this!! Voting up and useful, because it is. I have had to retrain myself as I've grown up (finally) to really pay attention to a.) labels and b.) the world around me. Thanks for bringing it back into focus for me. :)