Every home comes with a cupboard stocked with all the products necessary to keep the place spotless, as there’s nothing safer than a clean home. However, we’ve been misled regarding the safety of these products. The household cleaning products we assume to be safe are actually exposing our bodies to dangerous toxins and chemicals. It is important to understand everything we can about these toxic ingredients, and actively replace them with safe, natural alternatives.
Environmental experts say the average household contains upwards of 50 toxic chemicals, distributed amongst the most common cleaners and disinfectants available. Our inevitable exposure to these chemicals, whether through synthetic deodorants or strong cleaners, puts us and our loved ones in harm’s way. There have been numerous cases of asthma, reproductive disorders, hormone imbalances, neurotoxicity, and even cancer, being linked to the ingredients found in our common household products.
Beth Greer, Super Natural Home (2009)
Let’s turn our attention to the story of Beth Greer, author of Super Natural Home (2009). When a nagging shoulder pain resulted in an MRI scan, showing the presence of a benign tumour, Greer was faced with the prospect of a risky surgical procedure. As the doctors were in agreement of the risks involved, Greer was convinced against it and sought an alternative course of treatment. One of the many steps taken to combat further irritation and inflammation of the tumour was the eliminating of any environmental toxins contributing to its growth.
Nine months down the line, the tumour had reduced completely and Greer was in the clear! Convinced of its contribution to the battle, Greer set out to share the impact of reducing her exposure to toxins, and the critical role it played in helping her recover.
After dedicating many years to educating the world on the importance of detoxification, Greer began using her expertise to write about living a toxin-free life, which led to her book, Super Natural Home (Rodale Books, 2009).
The most shocking discovery of Greer’s research was the absence of federal regulation on the chemical ingredients present in household products. Rebecca Sutton, PhD, and senior scientist at the Environmental Working Group (EWG), explains, “In terms of household cleaners, neither ingredients nor products must meet any sort of safety standard, nor is any testing data or notification required before bringing a product to market.”
The most common argument used by manufacturers for the safety of these products is that their toxic ingredients are only present in small doses. While this may be true, it is countered with the frequency of exposure as these products are routinely used in every environment we visit – homes, offices, institutions etc. While the impact varies across products, there’s adequate evidence to support the claim that they contribute to the number of chemicals stored in body tissues, known as the ‘toxic burden’ of the body.
It may be impossible to avoid exposure to these toxic chemicals altogether, but that doesn’t mean we cannot take efforts to significantly reduce it.
Risks of Chemical Cleaning Products to Personal Health
When using commercial cleaning products to maintain our homes, we utilise an array of chemicals to help clean and disinfect it. However, these chemicals contribute to the air pollution present indoors, and can be poisonous to ingest, inhale or even touch.
Different cleaning ingredients pose a number of health hazards, with a variety of symptoms. There are those which cause acute or immediate issues like skin or respiratory irritation, watery eyes, and chemical burns, while others are associated with chronic, or long-term, illnesses like cancer.
Corrosive cleaning products like drain cleaners, oven cleaners, and acidic toilet bowl cleaners are extremely dangerous as they can severely burn the eyes, skin and, if ingested, the throat and oesophagus. Certain ingredients like chlorine, bleach and ammonia posses a highly acute level of toxicity, and they produce fumes that cause irritation to the eyes, nose, throat and lungs. These substances are not suitable for people suffering from asthma, lung problems, or heart problems. An additional threat posed by these chemicals is their tendency to react with each other, creating gases that can severely damage the lungs.
The artificial fragrances added to laundry detergents and fabric softeners could result in cases of respiratory irritation, sneezing, migraines, and watery eyes in individuals suffering from asthma, or other allergies. The National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health stated that one-third of the substances found in fragrance industry products are toxic, and these companies are able to get away with not disclosing the list of ingredients in their chemical formulas under the guise of preserving ‘trade secrets’ while simply labelling products as containing ‘fragrance’.
Other cleaners that are seemingly low in acute toxicity create long-term health risks like cancer or forms of hormone disruption. All-purpose cleaners contain the substances which react with nitrites to form carcinogens capable of readily penetrating the skin. These cleaners also contain substances known to be neurotoxic, meaning they are capable of causing brain damage and can affect the nervous system.
Certain chemicals known as ‘hormone disruptors’ disrupt with the natural chemical communications within the body, either by blocking or mimicking the actions of hormones. This results in health effects like a loss in sperm count, increased rate of birth defects in children, and increased rates of cancer cells occurring.
Risk to the Environment
Once we’re done with our cleaning, we drain away the cleaning liquids which make their way to be treated along with sewage and other waste water at treatment plants, before being discharged into nearby waterways. While the majority of ingredients break down into harmless substances, either during treatment or soon afterward, there are still toxins which can harm the environment.
Surfactants, or ‘surface active agents’, play a vital role in ensuring the effectiveness of laundry detergents, disinfectants, stain removers, and other cleaners. The drained liquid cleaners get discharged along with other waste water, where these chemicals proceed to break down into even more toxic substances incapable of properly degrading into the soil and water. The presence of these toxic substances poses a threat to the survival of marine life as it pollutes their ecosystems and harms their ability to reproduce.
Phosphates are a water-softening mineral additive that was previously a common ingredient in laundry detergents and other cleaners. Upon entering waterways, these phosphates can act as fertiliser, resulting in an overgrowth of algae. This increase in aquatic plant life disrupts the ecosystem, harming fish and other organisms. Despite being banned in many parts of the world, certain cleaning products still contain phosphates.
In addition to the dangers of these chemicals, many of these products are petroleum-based, which contributes to the harm we are doing to Mother Nature as we continue to deplete non-renewable resources.
Things to Remember
Majority of our household needs can be handled with safe, simple ingredients like soap, water, baking soda, vinegar, lemon juice and borax, along with a good sponge to scrub with. However, the need for a heavy-duty commercial cleaners, or routine cleaning products like laundry or dishwashing detergents, is unavoidable. Here are a few green flags to help identify the safer products to use, lessening the risk to your personal health and the environment –
- Take a look at the label for a better idea of the potential hazards of the product. Labels bearing words like ‘Danger’, ‘Warning’, and ’Caution’, provide an indication of the toxicity of a product. If looking for a cleaning product, try and spot one that does not require showcasing the above words on its label. Product instructions will help ensure you avoid additional risk or injury. While they do not generally list active ingredients, some products provide information on certain caustic or irritating ingredients that are to be avoided, such as ammonia or sodium hypochlorite.
- It is important to look for specifics when assessing the ecological claims of a product. For example, vaguely stating ‘biodegradable’ is not as trustworthy as ‘biodegradable in 3 to 5 days’, as most substances eventually break down, given the right ecological conditions and time. Look for claims like ‘No solvents’, “No phosphates’ or ‘plant-based’, as opposed to non-descriptive terms that claim to be safe for environment.
- In the case where an ingredient list is available, favour products with plant-based ingredients over the petroleum-based alternatives.
- A good way to reduce creating excess packaging waste is to choose the larger container sizes, as these will be routinely used. It is advised to choose concentrated formulas, containing only 20% or less water as it is more cost-effective to dilute it at home, according to the requirement.
Household Cleaner Shopping Tips
- Avoid cleaners labelled with ‘Danger’ or ‘Poison’, and keep an eye out for common warnings like ‘corrosive’ or ‘may cause burns’.
- Avoid products that contain active ingredients like chlorine or ammonia, as they can cause respiratory irritation and skin irritation. These chemicals also create toxic fumes if mixed together.
- Avoid purchase of detergents that contain phosphates in order to protect the quality of our water and aquatic ecosystems.
- Beware of unregulated usage of terms like ‘natural’ and ‘eco-friendly’ as they cannot be equated with safety unless supported by specific ingredient information, like ‘solvent-free’, ‘no petroleum-based ingredients’, ‘no phosphates’ etc. Simply stating ‘Non-toxic’ is not considered as valid unless it has been verified by a third party.
- Beware of products that appear eco-friendly with meaningless claims like ‘no CFCs’. CFCs, or chlorofluorocarbons, are known to deplete the ozone layer and have been banned from aerosols for almost 40 years. However, this doesn’t stop products from claiming to have ‘no CFCs’, misleading consumers to believing they are good for the environment.
Primary Toxins in Cleaners
Phthalates are chemicals primarily found in household fragrance products like air fresheners, dish soaps, wet tissues etc. Companies are able to get away with not disclosing the ingredients for their products due to proprietary laws. This results in countless product labels with the generic term ‘fragrance’ on it, where the presence of phthalates is virtually undetectable.
According to an earlier study conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Harvard School of Public Health, individuals with high levels of phthalate compounds in the blood were found to suffer from reduced sperm counts as phthalates act as endocrine disruptors. While inhalation is the primary danger associated with phthalate exposure, individuals must avoid contact with skin as it lacks the safeguards to prevent these toxins from entering. Additionally, these aerosol deodorants and air fresheners are known to cause headaches and aggravate asthma.
The best solution is to opt for natural, organic products instead of these chemical-based products. It is recommended to avoid commercial air fresheners altogether and opt for essential oils instead. Take steps to improve circulation of fresh air, and consider adding more plants to your home as they serve as natural air detoxifiers.
2. Perchloroethylene or “PERC”
PERC is a neurotoxin commonly found in dry-cleaning products, spot removers, carpet cleaners and upholstery cleaners.
Classified as a possible carcinogenic toxin, PERC causes symptoms like dizziness or lack of coordination, amongst others. The suspected health risks of PERC has reduced its availability, but it is still commonly found in certain cleaning solutions. The primary form of exposure is through inhalation so be cautious of inhaling fumes and odours in cleaning facilities, or during cleaning procedures at home.
Avoid using products that can only be dry-cleaned. In case of such products, try finding cleaners who utilise water-based technologies rather than the conventional chemical-based cleaners. There are some cleaning facilities that utilise liquid carbon dioxide (CO2) as it a dry-cleaning solvent that is less toxic to the environment.
Triclosan is an antibacterial agent commonly found in ‘antibacterial’ dishwasher liquids, hand soaps, and other cleaning mediums.
As an antibacterial agent, triclosan has been proven to promote the growth of drug-resistant bacteria in the body. There has been no evidence to support the fact that triclosan makes surfaces or environments any cleaner, resulting in unnecessary weakening of our body’s defences against antibiotics. This triclosan is also proven to affect the surrounding algae, when disposed of in rivers and streams, and could prove to have adverse effects on the body’s hormonal function as well.
Try to stick with straightforward soaps and detergents that come with shorter ingredient lists. By avoiding triclosan-based products, it is possible to utilise safer products and sidestep any risk of exposure.
4. Quarternary Ammonium Compounds, or “QUATS”
QUATS are a form of antimicrobial agent commonly found in laundry products such as fabric softening liquids and dryer sheets, as well as majority of ‘antibacterial’ household cleaning supplies.
Similar to the problem faced with triclosan, QUATS assist the breeding of antibiotic-resistant bacteria and expose the body to additional risk. These toxins are also found to cause skin irritation, and are suspected of aggravating respiratory issues such as asthma.
Vinegar works as an excellent replacement for fabric softeners, as it is not only non-toxic but also capable of removing soap residue and preventing static cling in garments. Ensure to use White Vinegar as other types can stain fabrics. As an alternative to chemical disinfectants, try mixing a few few drops of tea-tree oil with a tablespoon of vinegar, diluted with water, in a convenient spray bottle. By adding a few drops of Lavender essential oils, you create a safe, scented all-purpose cleaner for yourself!
2-Butoxyethanol is the primary ingredient in majority of Window Cleaners, Kitchen Cleaners and Multi-purpose Cleaners.
Identified by a characteristically ‘sweet’ scent, 2-Butoxyethanol is a powerful chemical belonging to the ‘glycol ether’ category, and can cause sore throats and other severe afflictions. Despite it’s ability to contribute to narcosis, pulmonary oedema, and severe liver and kidney damage, there are no laws against 2-Butoxyethanol being added in these cleaners.
Mirrors and windows are amongst the many surfaces that can be effectively cleaning using vinegar, diluted with water. Combining baking soda, diluted vinegar, and some essential oils for fragrance, creates your own home remedies that are safe and cost-effective.
Ammonia’s ability to easily evaporate and not leave streaks behind on surfaces is the reason why it is commonly found in polishers used on fixtures in the bathroom, on jewellery, and even as a glass cleaner.
A severe irritant to the throat and lungs, ammonia is most harmful to those suffering from asthma and other respiratory issues. For people exposed to ammonia on a regular basis, such as professional cleaners and maintenance staff, the risk of developing asthma or a form of bronchitis is high. Additionally, ammonia and bleach release a highly poisonous gas when mixed together.
Surprisingly, a common household alternative for polishing silver is toothpaste. Vodka can also be used as a substitute for ammonia in homemade cleaning solutions.
DIY Home Remedies
Here are a few handy recipes that you can whip up at home, ensuring a safe and cost-effective cleaning solution for you and your loved ones:
- Sink Cleaner – Take ½ cup baking soda and add 6 drops of any essential oils of your choosing. Ensure to rinse the sink well with hot water before applying the concoction onto it. Proceed to pour ¼ cup vinegar over the applied baking soda mixture. Once the fizz settles, thoroughly scrub with a damp cloth or sponge before rinsing again with hot water.
- Oven Cleaner – First fill an appropriate dish with water and place it into the over before turning on the heat. The steam created by this softens any caked grease in your oven. Once cool, apply a paste comprised of salt, vinegar and baking soda in equal proportions before scrubbing thoroughly.
- Bathroom Cleaner – Mold and mildew occur in areas lacking in proper ventilation. Fortunately, a simple home remedy is to combine 2 cups of water, 1/4 teaspoon of lavender oil and 1/4 teaspoon of tea-tree oil. This can be used as an effective spray that breaks down trouble spots and makes it easier to clean. Ensure to shake thoroughly before use.
- Carpet Cleaner – Combine 3 cups water, ¾ cup vegetable-based liquid soap, and 10 drops of any essential oils of your choosing. The mixture creates a foam that can be thoroughly applied to soiled, stained areas before cleaning with a damp sponge. Vacuum the area after it dries.
- Dusting – Instead of using toxic polishes, dust your furniture down with a microfiber cloth, whose synthetic fibers are far more effective than ordinary cloths. When polishing, try using olive oil as a handy household alternative.
The Benefits of Green Cleaning
Here are a few of the many benefits of turning towards natural cleaning solutions, and putting an end to the harmful chemicals we regularly expose ourselves to –
1. A Healthy Home
The switch to natural products will ensure a healthier home as the individuals are no longer absorbing harmful chemicals into their skin, or breathing them into their lungs. Studies support the claim that use of a common household spray, even once a week, increases an individual’s risk of developing asthma.
2. Environmental Impact
Conventional cleaning products are responsible for the release of countless chemicals to the environment. When disposed of, these chemicals find their ways into our water supplies, poisoning ecosystems and releasing harmful toxins into the air we breathe. By changing to natural solutions, we not only reduce pollution in the short-run but also help fight against climate change, and the rapid depletion of the ozone layer.
3. Health & Safety
The use of chemical-based cleaning products creates a high risk of suffering from burns or skin reactions, from making contact with it. Natural cleaners are not corrosive in nature, and will not harm individuals exposed to it.
3. Improved Air Quality
We improve the quality of our air, and the environment as a whole, by turning towards natural cleaning solutions. Often infused with essential oils, or other pleasant aromas, these cleaners are much preferable to their chemical-based counterparts.
Natural cleaning solutions are extremely cost-effective as they make use of common household items, or things that can be easily purchased in grocery stores or supermarkets. Whether as a homeowner, or a business owner, there’s no denying the value of turning towards environmentally-friendly cleaning products.
5. Less Antibacterials
Excessive use of antibacterial agents is proven to promote an individual’s bacterial resistance to conventional antibiotics. Some antibacterial agents contain ‘Triclosan’ (refer above) which is known to adversely affect individuals exposed to it. Natural cleaning products generally do not contain any such antibacterial agents.
6. Awareness & Knowledge
By creating your own natural home remedies, and understating the dangers of certain chemicals, you grow more aware of the ingredients you and your family are exposed to. Every individual can benefit from knowledge of various ingredients, and the effect these can have on our personal health and wellbeing.