Just this past weekend, CBC Marketplace did another one of their consumer product reviews, digging into the reality behind the marketing claims. This one is of special interest to me, because I'm both a chemical engineer and and an environmentally conscious person, and it demonstrates pretty clearly why a lot of people believe that combination isn't possible.

This episode was titled Lousy Labels: Home Edition (video, 22 minutes; text summary of their findings) and tackled "greenwashing", or overblown claims of being environmentally friendly, specifically on household products.

Since it's a 22 minute show and they covered ten products, that leaves about 2 minutes per product. There's a lot they had to leave out to fit inside that time limit.

So, because I am interested in learning, interested in being environmentally friendly, chemically inclined, and perpetually looking for something interesting to write about, I decided to take a closer look at these products.

Oh, and since I'm a chemical engineer and some people will be suspicious of me because of that, I will state up front that I have no relationship with any of the chemical products or companies talked about in this show. I don't do consumer goods, I do industrial scale environmental cleanup type stuff.

I'll do them in the same order that Marketplace did, which means I will start with #10: Raid EarthBlends Multi-bug Killer.

I'm actually glad that they listed the Raid first, because SC Johnson is very good about making their product information available online—especially my first stop for toxicity claims, the MSDS. I did a previous post on one of their products and had no problem finding the specific information I was looking for. Kudos to SC Johnson for their openness. Since this episode aired on Friday and I post on Monday, easy access to information means I don't have to postpone this for a week while I search for references.


The basic claim on the SCJ page for the product is "An alternative insect control solution that contains an insecticide derived from the chrysanthemum flower." On the EarthBlends family page, the claim is "Uses the power of earth and science to kill bugs dead." The containers are green in colour (a common tactic for products sold as environmentally friendly) but the regular Raid product packaging colours seen on the SCJ website are red, green, blue, or two-colour red and green, so this doesn't seem to be a special colour just for their plant-derived insecticide.

Marketplace's comment in the text version starts with: "With an insecticide derived from the chrysanthemum flower, Raid EarthBlends Multi-bug Killer touts itself as an alternative insect control solution. Despite its naturally derived component, the label warns users to avoid contact with skin and clothes, and not to inhale the mist when spraying it."

They say this like that warning label is a bad thing. IT'S AN INSECTICIDE, PEOPLE. IT'S SUPPOSED TO BE POISON. If it didn't have that label that would be a problem: either they'd be not labelling a hazardous substance according to the law, or it wouldn't be poisonous enough to kill bugs.

Marketplace do have a fair point in the next paragraph though, in that a lot of people mistakenly believe that because something is natural (plant-derived, in this case) that it's safe. Lots and lots of plants are poisonous. Potato plants that you can grow in your backyard are poisonous - every part except the tuber, in fact. Tomato plants, every part except the berry, are also poisonous, although you have to eat more of it to get sick than with potatoes.

Back to the insecticide. From the MSDS, the contents of Raid EarthBlends Multi-bug Killer are:

ChemicalCAS-No.Weight %
Deionized Water7732-18-560.00 - 100.00
Isobutane75-28-510.00 - 30.00
Propane74-98-61.00 - 5.00
Distillates (petroleum), hydrotreated light64742-47-81.00 - 5.00
Piperonyl butoxide51-03-61.01

Leaving aside how the product could be up to 100% water because all the other components have minimum quantities higher than zero, let's look at the others components.

Isobutane and propane are the propellant. They just make the spray-can spray, and evaporate as soon as they leave the can's nozzle. They are petrochemicals and, being oil-derived, aren't exactly "green".

Alternative propellants do exist. CO2 is used as a propellant in some spray products (such as whipping cream), but it doesn't aerosolize those, it just foams them. I don't know if it's a powerful enough propellant to be used for aerosol sprays. They can't just pack the can with compressed gas; to deliver the entire contents of the can in aerosolized form, there would have to be dangerously high pressures inside (or a big can with a tiny payload). Compressed inert gases such as N2 is better used to squirt a liquid stream than to aerosolize something.

Liquefied gases, of which light hydrocarbons including propane and butane are the easiest to work with, are fantastic for aerosolizing things: they have a pressure sufficiently higher than atmospheric to aerosolize the spray, without being dangerously high; when under that pressure most of their mass is liquid and thus at a very small volume; and when some propellant gas is released when you spray something, more gas evaporates from the liquid "reservoir" to replace it and keep the pressure inside the can constant.

The hydrotreated light petroleum distillates are oil dispersants, used to make oil (the propellants) and water mix. Also petrochemicals, as with the propellants.

Which leaves the last two items, at 1.01 and 0.25% by weight, the actual insecticide.

Piperonyl butoxide isn't an insecticide by itself, but it does affect the bugs it's sprayed on, making them less able to fight off the effects of the actual insecticide. This allows a lower concentration of the actual insecticide to be used. Piperonyl butoxide is very toxic to aquatic invertebrates (page 39) but only slightly toxic to mammals (page 16). It persists in the soil for a couple of months, which means it can be washed into a stream by rain, and once there poison the stream life.

The pyrethrins are the chrysanthemum flower extract advertised. This is a known and effective pesticide and was widely used before WWII (page 55), until more effective synthetic pesticides were discovered. It is still used in organic agriculture as well as in home pesticides like the Raid spray under discussion.

The bad things about pyrethrin as an insecticide are that it kills beneficial insects as well as nuisance ones. Bees are particularly sensitive to it. It's also highly toxic to fish and aquatic invertebrates. It's a contact killer only, so you have to spray the stuff on the bugs to kill them, which means you have to find the bugs and any you don't hit with the spray will survive.

The good things about pyrethrin as an insecticide are that it's a contact killer only and degrades quickly in sunlight, so an hour or two after spraying, any honeybees that come visiting shouldn't be hurt by it.

Ok, on to the product claims part.

SC Johnson calls it an "alternative" pesticide. If you want to call something that's been in use for close to a century "alternative", then they might be right. Personally, I wouldn't use that description.

"An insecticide derived from the chrysanthemum flower" - true, and well-known.

"Uses the power of earth and science" - with some leeway for artistic license: yes, the active ingredient is a natural product, and it has been scientifically shown to work, so I'll grant this one as true even though I don't think building an implied dichotomy between nature and science is accurate or helpful.

"to kill bugs dead" - pyrethrin is a well known and well characterized insecticide, so also true.

Marketplace's claims:

"A lot of things in nature are actually dangerous and toxic" - 100% true. The fact that the active ingredient comes from a flower doesn't make it less toxic.

"in many parts of Canada, homeowners are banned from using such pesticides on their lawns" - many provinces have banned pesticide use on lawns. These are generally bans on cosmetic pesticide use, and pesticides are allowed where insects or plants are posing an actual hazard.

Ontario banned cosmetic pesticide use on Earth Day 2009. Pesticide use for stinging insects or poisonous plants is still allowed. Class 5 and class 6 pesticides are allowed for cosmetic use. Pyrethrins are listed in class 5, and thus are allowed.

BC has a bill for each of the four years between 2009 and 2012 banning cosmetic pesticide use. Allowed pesticides are in the Reduced Risk Pesticide list. Pyrethrin is not listed, so I guess if that bill ever passes then it would be banned.

Since BC is using a list produced by the federal government, chances are good that several other provinces will be doing the same thing, and some may have passed bills banning cosmetic pesticides using that list already. Ontario is using their own list; other provinces may be doing that as well.

So, it's a patchwork, as is usual for stuff regulated by the provinces.

"Banned from your backyard, but not from your bed?" regarding the listed use as a bedbug killer and an indoor pesticide in general - this question strikes me as rather alarmist. If you look at the toxicity data which I linked to above, both of the active ingredients are low toxicity to mammals but very high toxicity to fish and especially to aquatic invertebrates, which means if you spray the stuff on your lawn and it rains you have a high likelihood of killing non-pest critters living in nearby streams, but if you spray it on your bed and open your window to air out the room hours before you go to sleep like any sensible person spraying an insecticide around would do, you are only killing bugs. Seriously, who would spray their bed with insecticide then go straight to sleep in it?

As far as their comments on the long list of warnings printed on the can, shock and horror, cover fish bowls—guess what, that's SC Johnson being completely open about the fact that this stuff is toxic to fish. Keep pets and children out of the room? Sure, pets stick their noses in the darndest places, and they have a lower body mass than an adult human so it'll take less to affect them. You're spraying a pesticide around. It's poison. It's sold as poison, explicitly for the sole purpose of killing things. It's low toxicity to mammals, but it's still a poison. The stuff about flushing skin and eyes is completely boilerplate exposure instructions, I don't think I've ever seen a chemical product with a chance of mild skin irritation or more that doesn't say that sort of thing.

Oh, and Marketplace? "Do not inhale spray" is a standard warning on aerosols. The propellant can get you high; it's called "huffing" and it's bad for your health. That dramatic holding of breath to spray from the can is something you should consider doing for all aerosols, be it air freshener, hairspray, or cooking spray (which is food safe). Although not so dramatic, and without spraying the product wildly every which way.

So, my conclusion differs somewhat from Marketplace's conclusion.

SC Johnson isn't lying anywhere on the can. They are taking advantage of people's mistaken belief that natural is safer to sell more than their competitors, but but given that they explicitly market it as a product that "kills bugs dead" and it has pictures of dead bugs on the front, nobody can reasonably pretend that it's not a poison. They also explicitly say on the back to cover aquariums, the pets most likely to be harmed by the product. I can't say that it's a lousy label. The flower is a marketing ploy to be sure, but there are no lies on this product. If I needed to kill bugs inside or outside of my house, I would have no problem using it—according to the product directions, of course. As they don't claim that it's eco-friendly or non-toxic, only that it's naturally derived, I wouldn't call this greenwashing.

I'm disappointed in Marketplace's evaluation of this product; I have come to expect better of them. Even given the limited time they had to present their findings, I found what they chose to make the cut into the show alarmist and incomplete.

Since this was number 10 on their list, I imagine as they count down the products will get worse, and I'm interested to see how the other ones fare in my analysis.

Greenwashing series:
10: Raid EarthBlends Multi-bug killer
9: Sunlight Green Clean Laundry Detergent
8: Obusforme EcoLogic Contoured pillow
7: Simple Green All-Purpose Cleaner
6: Eco Collection Bath Mitt
5: Vim PowerPro Naturals
4: Organic Melt Ice Remover
3: T-fal Natura frying pan
2: Biodegradable J Cloth
1: Dawn Antibacterial Hand Soap
Final thoughts


mathscinotes said...

I really like the idea of fact-checking labels.

Curious Chemeng said...

It's amazing what you learn when you fact-check things. :-)

Fujisawa Rob said...

Wow, I used to buy this, thinking it was much better than other products (it's almost impossible to find now, I don't even know if they make it). Thanks for the details.

Anonymous said...

The fact that they developed "more powerful" synthetic sprays is crazy. This stuff works fantastically well.

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