Avoiding unsafe cleaning products is just as important as identifying safe ones. One hundred thousand chemicals are used commercially, and the production of chemicals doubles every seven years. Cleaning products are among the most toxic substances that can be found in the average home. Most household cleaners are hazardous to health and the environment. In recent years, toxic chemicals have been implicated in the rising incidence of asthma, autism, childhood cancer, leukemia, and reduced sperm count.
Household products may contain dangerous ingredients such as organic solvents and petroleum-based chemicals which can release volatile organic compounds (VOCs), making indoor air toxic. Studies conducted by the Environmental Protection Agency’s Total Exposure Assessment Methodology (TEAM) found levels of about 12 common organic pollutants to be two to five times higher inside your home than outside. Even worse, these contaminants may persist indoors long after using a product.
We cannot assume the household cleaning products we buy are safe because of their availability. There is a great deal we do not know about the chemicals in our cleaners. Companies are not required to disclose ingredients, and though products designed for cleaning will indicate if a poison is included—dangerous if swallowed, enters the eyes, or volatile containers—they do not provide information about long-term toxicity. In addition, product labels only address acute (immediate) effects, but offer no warnings of long-term health implications. Last but not least, common household products are not required to disclose “inert” ingredients which may be hazardous and toxic.
Some ingredients in household cleaners are known to cause cancer in animals and are suspected human carcinogens. The danger the chemicals pose depends on how often you use the products and the length of exposure. Government regulations control emissions, but not exposure.
Here is a list of some of the common chemicals found in household products and the symptoms they can cause:
Corrosives: Many toilet, drain, and oven cleaners are labeled “Danger. Corrosive.” Corrosives include some of the most dangerous chemicals in the home, such as lye, hydrochloric acid, phosphoric acid, and sulfuric acid. These chemicals can burn the skin, cause internal burns if ingested, and explode if used incorrectly.
Ammonia: Many home and commercial products contain ammonia. This chemical can irritate eyes and lungs and can cause headaches. Ammonia should particularly be avoided by anyone with asthma or other lung sensitivities.
Chlorine bleach (sodium hypochlorite): If mixed with ammonia, vinegar or other acid-based cleaners, it will release toxic chloramine gas. Short-term exposure to this gas can cause mild asthmatic symptoms or more serious respiratory problems. Never mix bleach with other substances.
Phosphates: These are naturally occurring minerals used in automatic dishwashing detergents as a water softener. When released back into the environment, phosphates can cause algae blooms in lakes and ponds that kill aquatic life. Look for phosphate-free dishwashing detergents.
Petroleum distillates: These hydrocarbon solvents produced from crude oil are found in a wide variety of consumer products including lip gloss, liquid gas, fertilizer, furniture polish, pesticides, plastics, paint thinners, solvents, motor oil, fuels, and hundreds of other products. Products containing petroleum distillates should be used carefully. Wear gloves to avoid skin contact and avoid breathing vapors of volatile compounds. Keep out of reach of children.
Phenol and cresol: These are found in disinfectants and can cause diarrhea, fainting, dizziness, and kidney and liver damage if ingested.
Nitrobenzene: Found in furniture and floor polishes. If inhaled, can cause shallow breathing. If ingested, can cause poisoning and death. This substance has also been linked to cancer and birth defects.
Formaldehyde: A colorless, strong-smelling gas widely used to manufacture building materials and numerous household products. In homes, it is most commonly used as an adhesive resin in pressed wood products. It is also used in glues, preservatives, permanent press fabrics, paper product coatings, and certain insulation materials. Formaldehyde is normally present at low levels, usually less than 0.06 ppm, in both outdoor and indoor air. When present in the air at levels at or above 0.1 ppm, acute health effects may occur including watery eyes, burning sensations in the eyes, nose and throat, nausea, coughing, skin rashes, and other irritating effects. Formaldehyde has caused cancer in laboratory animals and may cause cancer in humans. There is no known threshold level that does not present the threat of cancer. The risk depends upon quantity and duration of exposure.
Naphthalene: Made from coal tar, this volatile hydrocarbon is used for the manufacture of plastics, dyes and solvents, and is found in mothballs. It is a suspected carcinogen and may damage the eyes, blood cells, liver, kidneys, skin, and the central nervous system.
Paradichlorbenzene: Another chemical found in mothballs, toilet disinfectants, and deodorizers, paradichlorbenzene can harm the central nervous system, liver, and kidneys.
Hydrochloric acid or sodium acid sulfate: These chemicas are found in toilet bowl cleaners, and can burn the skin and cause blindness if splashed in the eyes, or can burn the stomach if ingested.
When considering the purchase of household products, choose all-natural, biodegradable cleaning products that are packaged responsibly. Consciously purchasing these natural cleaning products will support companies that help minimize the impact of hazardous chemicals on health and the environment.
Another possibility is to substitute gentler natural cleaning products such as baking soda, vinegar, and liquid soap for most household cleaning. These homemade natural cleaners are simple, and as effective as commercial brands. Although these natural cleaners are derived from nature, some can still be harmful if swallowed; it is important to label them and keep them out of reach of children. Some are also skin irritants. Protect your hands with gloves when cleaning.