A perfectly clean house is something akin to impossible with children (or pets), yet so many are always striving for that perfection anyway. What we now know is that the very things many use to keep homes and families clean result in adverse environmental and health effects.
Babies and children are particularly vulnerable to the toxins in their environment due to small size, developing systems, and the greater likelihood of spending more time on the floor and exploring with their mouths. Then there is the simple fact that pound-for-pound, children breathe more air, drink more water, and eat more food than adults.
Conventional household cleaning products contain harsh chemicals that are potentially harmful to your family’s health, many of which have been allowed to remain a secret, exempt from safety testing. They greatest myth is that these products keep your home cleaner and your family safe from unwanted germs.
A Few Facts About Household Cleaners
- Household cleaners are a leading cause of poisoning of children. Some are fatal. Some result in permanent injury. All can be avoided by keeping these toxic chemicals out of your home.
- Other health hazards from ingredients in cleaners vary from immediate to long-term. Immediate health effects might be skin or respiratory irritation, watery eyes, or chemical burns. Long-term health effects might be cancer or hormone disruption.
- Long-term exposure for children occurs when crawling and sitting on a freshly cleaned floor; breathing the air in a room sprayed with air freshener or simply cleaned with any number of sprayed, mopped, or wiped cleaners; putting fingers or toys in mouths and noses; constantly touching surface areas that have been exposed to cleaners.
- Everything is made from chemicals. The hard part is understanding what the difference is between a toxic chemical with potentially harmful effects and chemicals that are important and beneficial (or neutral).
It can seem overwhelming when embarking on a task to go greener with your household cleaners. Start small, just start!
Common Toxic Chemicals In Conventional Cleaners
First, understand the common toxic ingredients in conventional household cleaners. The following are ingredients that can be found in most conventional household cleaners: all-purpose cleaners, glass cleaners, room deodorizing products, air fresheners, toilet bowl cleaners, dish soap, disinfectants, dishwasher detergent, and laundry detergent.
- 2-Butoxyethanol (aka glycol ethers, butyl cellosolve, butyl glycol, ethylene glycol, monobutyl) – Can be inhaled or easily absorbed through skin. Contact can irritate skin, nose, and throat, with possible eye damage. May cause liver and kidney damage, blood disorders, and reproductive problems like testicular damage, infertility, miscarriage, and birth defects. Also known as a neurotoxin.
- Alkylphenol ethoxylates (APEs) and Ethoxylated nonyl phenols (NPEs) - Petroleum based surfectants that are rarely listed on ingredient lists. APEs and NPEs cause a such a long list of health and environmental problems that their use has been severely restricted or banned outright in all Western nations except for the U.S. One of the most disturbing toxic effects is hormone disruption for people and wildlife. Because it does not biodegrade easily, APEs and NPEs are found in water and sediment. We are seeing damaging effects on the fish and wildlife in those areas at even low doses.
- Ammonia – Eye, nose, and throat irritant. Can cause breathing difficulty, wheezing, chest pains, pulmonary edema, skin burns. High exposure can lead to blindness, lung damage, heart attack or death. A toxic gas is created if mixed with chlorine bleach (or even chlorinated tap water). Ingestion causes burns in the mouth, throat and stomach and can be fatal.
- Antibacterials - Antibacterials are found in almost every type of household cleaner these days. The biggest myth is that they protect your family from getting sick. Antibacterials are only effective against bacteria, not viruses, and they destroy the good bacteria that our bodies rely on to stay healthy. No data supports their effectiveness over plain soap and water.
Triclosan, a pesticide, is the most common antibacterial and is linked to the increased number of antibiotic resistant bacteria. When exposed to sunlight or mixed with tap water, triclosan will turn into a carcinogen that also causes liver and kidney damage.
- Bleach (Sodium hypochlorite) - Bleach is the corrosive cleanser that causes the most trips to the hospital. Sodium hypochlorite is an eye, skin and respiratory irritant, as well as a sensitizer (meaning a substantial proportion of people develop an allergic reaction after repeated exposure). It is especially hazardous to people with heart conditions or asthma, and can be fatal if swallowed. It may be a neurotoxin and toxic to the liver.
- Formaldehyde – Formaldehyde is a disinfectant used in many household cleaners. It is also a known carcinogen, specifically known as a cause of leukemia and nose and throat cancer. Ear, nose, and throat irritations and asthma are common reactions.
- Lye (Sodium hydroxide) – Lye is found in oven and drain cleaners. Lye is highly corrosive and will severely burn the skin, eyes, nose and throat, as well as the stomach and esophagus on contact.
- Naptha – Naptha is the leading cause of accidental poisoning in children. Naptha is a neurotoxin. Symptoms of exposure include headache, nausea, dizziness, and difficulty breathing. Large amounts can damage or destroy red blood cells.
- Phthalates – These are found in the fragrances used to mask the chemical smell in nearly all household cleaners and air fresheners. Don’t be fooled by a “fragrance-free” or “unscented” label either. That label only means that there is no odor, not that synthetic fragrance was not used. Phthalates are hormone disruptors that have been linked to early puberty for girls and genital defects in boys, also infertility, sperm damage, and increased risk of testicular cancer to name just a few.
- Phosphates – Phosphates used to be primarily found in dishwasher detergents. Phosphates greatest ill effect is due to the fact that it can easily reach waterways and encourage the overgrowth of algae, which can kill off fish populations and other aquatic life.
- Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS), Sodium Lauryl Ether Sulfate (SLES) - These chemicals alter the skin’s structure allowing other chemicals to penetrate the skin’s barriers. This increases the amount of the chemicals that reach the bloodstream. SLSes often contain 1,4-Dioxane and are frequent causes of contact dermatitis.
Oh, but wait! Manufacturers of cleaning products don’t have to list ingredients on their products or test those ingredients for safety. If you went to go check your own cleaning supplies, you might have realized this frustrating fact.
Don’t worry, stay tuned for tomorrow’s Part 2 where I will discuss the best alternatives so you can start greening your clean for a safer, healthier home!