August 25, 2019

Why I Can't Tinker with my Household Cleaner

John Mark Ockerbloom emailed an interesting story about Federal regulation of tinkering with household chemicals, which I quote here with permission:

I just washed our kitchen floor tonight. And (I admit guiltily)I haven’t done it in a while– usually I “let” my wife do it. So I look at the small print on the label of our Lysol All-Purpose Cleaner to remind me what to do, as I fill a bucket with water. And there I see the words “It is a violation of federal law to use this product in a manner inconsistent with its labeling.”

And I get to wondering: what law? And why? It’s all well and good that, for now at least, I can tinker with my digital TV signal, and I’m right with you at wanting to be able to tinker with my software. But supposing I like hacking cleaners or chemicals instead of code– why can’t I tinker with my cleaner like I should be able to with my computer?

Maybe, I think, it’s just like one of those overbroad warnings you sometimes see affixed to copyright notices. And I start to think about what the *real* regulation might be– using it to make a drug? An explosive? Poison? What can I really do with this, and what can’t I? And why?

15 minutes after firing up Google, I think I have my answer. Technically, under federal law I really *can’t* do anything with it other than what the label tells me to do– unless it’s to use a lower dose than what’s on the label. The relevant law appears to be in Title 7, Chapter 6, Subchapter II: Environmental Pesticides. 7 USC 136j tells me it really is illegal to use pesticides in a manner inconsistent with the labeling. And “pesticide” is defined in 7 USC 136 (u). I don’t see that it obviously includes my Lysol bottle, but another web page tells me that the EPA considers this definition to include disinfectants. My Lysol bottle claims to disinfect, so I gather this makes it a pesticide, and therefore subject to this federal law, and thus illegal to hack, as it were.

Now, my question: is this legal overreaching, and if so, where exactly is the overreach? I can see a legitimate reason for a government (if not federal, than at least state) to stop people from polluting the environment, as might occur if they dump too much bug killer– or even household cleaner– into the air or water. But can they really prevent me from doing anything other than what the labeler allows with my cleaner? (Like try to mix it with other ingredients to make a safer cleaner, or doing cleaner-vs-Twinkie endurance experiments, or seeing if I can separate some ingredients from the rest– in all cases being careful to contain and control the liquid and its vapors, and keep them on my property?) Or is the EPA, or Congress, overstepping its powers somehow?

And if not, then is there anything stopping Congress from giving, say, the FCC broad powers to prohibit using, say, digital media or devices in a manner inconsistent with the labeling their manufacturers give them? (There might be the First Amendment… or there might not be. It’s not clear it would apply in all electronic tinkering cases, and cases like Pacifica show that it can overridden in some cases where it would seem to apply.)

I’d be interested in finding out more, before I start seeing notices saying “it is illegal to record this program in a manner inconsistent with the presence of commercials” on my TV…

He also notes this:

I do see that it’s possible to get an “experimental use permit” to tinker with things considered pesticides, described in 7 USC 136c. Though it sounds like it’s not trivial to get; among other things, there’s a sentence in 136c that states “The Administrator may issue an experimental use permit only if the Administrator determines that the applicant needs such permit in order to accumulate information necessary to register a pesticide under section 136a of this title.”

Comments

  1. Ima Fish says:

    I think the law has nothing to do with protecting people from experimenting with chemicals. It’s purpose as far as I can tell is to protect the companies that produce them.

    Let’s imagine that some guy decides to make a super-cleaner. So he combines Lysol with Mr. Clean with Windex. The combination of chemicals burns the guy’s skin. Even ignoring comparative negligence, the company can still argue to the judge that the guy violated federal law and the company should be exonerated.

  2. If burning yourself were the only problem then I’d say that the measure is overbroad. The problem here is that mixing chemicals can produce invisible, odorless gases that can kill you quite fast! Do you know why propane gas is smelly? It is smelly to let you know whenever there is a leak! Propane gas is odorless, invisible, therefore the need of a strong odour marker. If it were not there, then you’d never notice that the gas is leaking until the eventual explosion. Same thing wih other poisonous gases that may arise of mixing chemicals. You may not notice them until you are already dead. And that is the reason for that law.

  3. My reading of these warnings has always been that they are directed at such products’ use as inhalant drugs. I base this on my observation that I see the “inconsistent with its labeling” phrase on various aerosol products, products pressurized with nitrous oxide, and products that emit copious volatile organic fumes.

    I think, in short, that it’s not an anti-hacking law that’s being referred to: it’s an anti-glue-sniffing law.

  4. Why can’t you tinker with your household cleaner? Presumably because cheating on your wife would upset her… 🙂

    I suspect, along with the other commentors, that this is mostly an ass-covering exercise on the part of the manufacturers, and quite right too — if you want to be an idiot and mix dangerous chemicals then it’s your own lookout!

  5. There is a significant liability issue particularly with household cleaners.

    If you mix ammonia (or anything containing it) with bleach (or anything containing it), the resulting reaction produces chlorine gas. Many people damage themselves doing this every year.

  6. There seem to be a significant number of laws that were written with the intent to curb bad or dangerous behavior, but because of laziness ended up overly broad. Like going over the speed limit 5 mph, we end up in violation of numerous laws everyday and depend on our law enforcement to be reasonable about who they pick-on (which also is a problem from time to time).

  7. Kevin Kenny says:

    Let’s see, they label the product an “all-purpose” cleaner. They they state that “it is a violation of Federal law to use the product in a manner inconsistent with its labeling.” Anyone except me detect a certain irony?

  8. longmemory says:

    These responses are missing an important piece of the history here. Lysol at one time advertised its usefulness as a douche product:

    http://thewvsr.com/lysol.htm

    At this point in time the ad just looks funny, but as I understand it, douching with Lysol also used to be used as a method of post-coital birth control and an abortifacient in the pre-Roe era. I’m not sure whether the old ads themselves were trying to hint at this possibility, which of course couldn’t be mentioned in print but maybe they thought women would read between the lines.

    That doesn’t answer whether or not the warning is legal, but it does respond to the company’s possible motives.

  9. Well I am waiting in fear for the Feds to come and arrest me because I only let the kitchen cleaner sit for 1 min 59 seconds before wiping it off, not the 2 minues specified on the label. I am sure they are spying on me to see how long I let it sit.
    Seriously, I agree it is a cever-all protection, and unless there are specific misuses that impact National or Public safetythat Feds are concerned about, or unless someone complains, there is probably no legal action imminent here.

  10. On my can of Real-Kill indoor fogger, it also says “Buyer assumes all responsibility for safety and use not in accordance with directions”. THAT is to protect the manufacturer.

    They can’t sell the active ingredients in quantities without a permit. They need a permit to sell each product they come up with. Part of the licensing includes the specific directions. Apply 10 times as much pesticide and you will be injuring people or the environment. Use the disinfectant at quarter-strength and you will be innoculating bacteria, helping them build resistance faster. That’s why the cover-all language — if you make up your own uses, then you are outside the permit!

    That cover-all language is dull — are they afraid to give examples? Don’t react thusly and make crystal meth; don’t react that way and make Sarin. Don’t use it as a cancer treatment, wart remover, paint stripper, dessert topping? (Sometimes they say ‘don’t dump this stuff in a lake’ and ‘don’t go spraying this stuff on bees’.)

    That cover-all language is creepy — can they tie our hands from everything? In the name of our own safety? and National Security?

    By accessing 120 Volts AC, you can kill yourself and others. They try to wall it off and tell you not to open things unless you know what you are doing.

    Gasoline can kill you — if you drink it, or wash with it near a spark, or even keep an open container in your room and let it evaporate (benzene).

    Concessions are made — we are allowed these things (120VAC, gasoline, Lysol, etc.) merely because they enable us to fulfill our reason for existence in this economy: to CONSUME. (In an industrial setting, a wider range of voltages, chemicals, and explosives are permitted to enable industry to enable them to PRODUCE.)

    Our civilization doesn’t NEED amateur chemists. We are very UNLIKELY to invent anything new or useful. We are most likely to produce something old (already discovered or already available) and redundant (lower quality, higher cost, more toxic by-products than the commercial version), or useless (abandoned).

    The other main reason for amateur chemistry lately is to deliberately produce regulated or illegal chemicals such as banned recreational drugs for fun or profit, and explosives and super-poisons for fun, murder, revolution, or profit.

    Since 1989, Texas has already put a huge paperwork burden on every laboratory, college, and high school by requiring registration and permits for every Erlenmeyer flask and other GLASSWARE because they are useful in illicit drug manufacture. http://tlo2.tlc.state.tx.us/statutes/statutes.html Maybe some day they will chase this further down and ban glass bottles of any kind, because they can be converted into illegal Erlenmeyer flasks. Maybe they can go house to house and seize all non-compliant “grandfathered” glassware of every kind.

    Refined drugs and poisons were the first controlled substances. After that came a WEED. (Marijuana.) Now glassware. There is a chilling effect on all rights.