Three major U.S. companies took steps recently to replace problematic chemicals with safer ones in consumer products.
Environmental and health advocates are cheering, predicting that the changes will ripple outward and help reshape the market, potentially transforming thousands of cleaning, personal care, and baby products.
They say it will greatly increase the safety of the things we spray and spread on ourselves and in our homes.
So, as with many things of late, while Congress dithers - in this case, over reform of chemical safety laws that even the industry says is long overdue - the rest of the country moves ahead, even if it's in piecemeal fashion.
"It's all positive," said Andy Igrejas, executive director of Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families, a nonprofit based in Washington, D.C. "Even when the federal government isn't doing things, the marketplace can. That's what you see here."
In August, Procter & Gamble noted on its website - no official announcement was made - that two chemicals targeted by advocates would be eliminated by 2014.
They are a phthalate used as a perfume fixative and triclosan, an antimicrobial agent used in soaps. Both have been linked to hormone disruption and other health effects.
In September, Walmart announced it would require suppliers to disclose all chemical ingredients and eventually eliminate about 10 "prioritized" chemicals, so far not publicly identified.
"Using greener chemicals is the right thing to do for our planet, our customers, and our business," said Andrea Thomas, senior vice president of sustainability for Walmart.
Then Target unveiled an internal sustainability rating system. Vendors of 7,500 products will be asked to complete an assessment, and of a possible 100 points, a product would lose 50 if it contained chemicals that are on any of six regulatory lists - among them, California's Proposition 65 list of chemicals that cause cancer or affect reproductive systems or development.
The ratings won't be something consumers can refer to when shopping. But the system will "inform" Target's merchandising and product-placement decisions, the company said.
Talk about market pressure! Target is certainly big, but Walmart is the world's largest retailer. Each week, more than 245 million customers visit Walmart stores. Sales this year are expected to top $460 billion. With a B.
The Environmental Defense Fund deemed Walmart so influential that it opened an office in Walmart's hometown, Bentonville, Ark. It takes no money from the company, but works closely with it on sustainability.
Meanwhile, some states have enacted restrictions or bans on certain chemicals. Minnesota, for one, bans formaldehyde in children's products.
So a company seeking to sell cleaners to Walmart, or baby shampoo in Duluth, will likely change its full line, not produce separate products.
The American Chemical Council, which represents ingredient manufacturers, said that companies do extensive safety testing, and that its members take consumer concerns seriously and would continue to work with retailers "to address our mutual goal of product safety."
By now, said Sarah Vogel, director of the Fund's health program and the author of a recent book on chemical safety, most manufacturers "are aware that consumer interest around this is changing. Pretty much all are offering products claiming to be free of chemicals of concern."
"GreenSpace," about the environment and health, appears every other week, alternating with Art Carey's "Well Being" column.