Everyone wants a sparkling clean home, office or school. Unfortunately, there’s a dirty secret to common cleaning products: they can be hazardous to your health. Some may contain carcinogens, reproductive toxins or endocrine-disrupting chemicals that can affect both humans and wildlife. Other ingredients, such as bleach and phosphates, raise environmental concerns.
If you’re like most people, you may not think twice about your cleaning supplies, but it may be time to. In fact, it might be time to dispose of them—not down the drain or out in the garbage—but in a place intended for hazardous waste. (Your local Department of Public Works can point you in the right direction.)
When you buy new cleaning products, look for manufacturers who list their natural ingredients on the label and purchase non-toxic, biodegradable cleaners. Better yet, you can make your own. In fact, for most clean-up jobs baking soda and vinegar are all you need. For example, you can make an all-purpose spray cleaner using equal parts of water and white vinegar to clean toilets, windows, wood, mirrors and countertops. Baking soda also makes a great deodorizing, scouring powder for sinks, bathtubs and toilets.
You can even make your own furniture polish. Just use 2 Tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil, one Tablespoon of white vinegar and 4 cups of water. Mix them together in a spray bottle, then spray furniture and wipe with a soft cloth.
You simply don’t want to use conventional cleaners. Here’s why. When used indoors under certain conditions, many common household cleaners and air fresheners emit toxic pollutants at levels that may lead to health risks, according to a study by researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. Exposure levels to some of the pollutants—and to the secondary pollutants formed when some of the products mix with ozone—may exceed regulatory guidelines when a large surface is cleaned in a small room or when the products are used regularly, resulting in chronic exposure, according to the study.
Terpenes, for example, are a class of chemicals found in pine, lemon and orange oils used in many consumer products either as solvents or to provide a distinctive scent. Although terpenes themselves are not considered toxic, some recent studies have shown that they may react with ozone to produce a number of toxic compounds.
These ingredients in household cleaning and home maintenance products are of particular concern because they are carcinogens, endocrine disrupters or known or suspected reproductive toxins. They are also the most commonly found in household products:
- 2-butoxyethanol: Also known as ethylene glycol butyl ether, it’s used as a solvent in carpet cleaners and specialty cleaners. It can be inhaled or absorbed through the skin and may cause blood disorders, as well as liver and kidney damage or reproductive damage.
- Ethoxylated nonyl phenols (NPEs): This is a group of endocrine-disrupting chemicals--"gender-benders." Nonyl phenols can induce female characteristics in male fish, for example.
- Methylene chloride: For years, people have been using methylene chloride, or products containing methylene chloride, as a paint stripper. Methylene chloride is listed as a possible human carcinogen.
- Naphthalene: Either naphthalene, or another chemical called paradichlorobenzene, is used in moth balls and moth crystals. Naphthalene is listed by California's Office of Environmental Health Hazards Assessment as a known carcinogen, while paradichlorobenzene is a possible human carcinogen.
- Silica: Made from finely ground quartz, silica is carcinogenic when it occurs as fine respirable dust. It's found in some abrasive cleanser and is often used on a regular basis around the home.
- Toluene: Toluene is a potent reproductive toxin, which is used as a solvent in numerous products, including paints.
- Trisodium nitrilotriacetate (NTA): Used as a builder in laundry detergents, NTA is listed as a possible human carcinogen (IARC 2B) by the International Agency for Research on Cancer.
- Xylene: Another extremely toxic ingredient often found in graffiti and scuff removers, spray paints and some adhesives, is xylene, a suspected reproductive toxin and neurotoxicant.
- Bleach: When bleach is mixed with acids (typically found in toilet bowl cleaners), it reacts with them to form chlorine gas. When it is mixed with ammonia, it can create chloramine gas, another toxic substance. The chlorine in bleach can also bind with organic material in the marine environment to form organochlorines, toxic compounds that can persist in the environment.
- Phosphates: Phosphates were a high-profile public issue decades ago when streams and lakes were becoming choked with vegetation in a chemical process known as eutrophication. The process was the result of widespread use of phosphates in laundry products. Phosphate levels might be down in laundry detergents, but they’re still found in dishwasher detergents.
So there you have it. The gloves are off when it comes to conventional cleaning products. After all, who wants squeaky clean at the price of health?