Consumers look to NLM site for household product data

It may promise whiter teeth and fresher breath, but what exactly is in that whitening toothpaste? And can it be harmful? The National Library of Medicine this summer launched a Web site that lets consumers look beyond the marketing hype to find factual information on household products.

The Web site, householdproducts.nlm.nih.gov, lists the chemical ingredients of more than 4,000 products. The site includes information on products ranging from antifreeze to antiperspirant, pesticides to paint thinner. The site lets users 'learn what's in the products under the kitchen sink, in the garage, in the bathroom and on the laundry room shelf,' NLM officials said.

Since its debut in late June, the site has received more than 61,775 visits, said Florence Chang, computer scientist for NLM.

The site lists each product's chemical ingredients and possible health risks caused by overexposure, eye contact, skin contact or ingestion.

For example, a search for 'antibacterial hand soap' reveals that Softsoap 2 in 1 Antibacterial Hand Soap Plus Moisturizing Lotion contains a dye called FD&C Red No. 40. Clicking on a hyperlink will list all the other products in the database that contain this dye.

Much of the information listed for each product comes from the Material Safety Data Sheets. An MSDS lists the chemical ingredients and safety information for each product. Manufacturers are required to file an MSDS with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration for every product that is used in the workplace.

NLM officials said that they don't evaluate the products, they just list the information provided by the manufacturers. 'We're a library, we're not evaluating the information,' said Vera Hudson, a biologist with NLM. 'We're just passing it along.'

The household products database is produced by a contractor, DeLima Associates. Officials at the McLean, Va., company decide what products to include in the database. 'NLM might give us a request, say, baby oil,' said CEO Henry DeLima. The contractor gives the data to NLM in a Microsoft Access file, which NLM officials then migrate to a MySQL database from MySQL Inc. of Seattle.

In addition to researching MSDSes, DeLima and his staff cull information from product labels and consumer product reviews.

DeLima said he picks the most popular brands, 'the kind you'd find in any retail store.'

About the Author

Trudy Walsh is a senior writer for GCN.

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