How Toxic Cleaners Can Affect Your Health

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How Toxic Cleaners Can Affect Your Health


Just in time for your annual “spring cleaning”, here is the latest information on the cleaners that line our store shelves and that we use on a daily basis. While we all like our cleaning products to actually “clean”, the research shows that there are dangerous chemicals found in most household cleaning products, and what you can use instead.

Having a clean home should never cost you something as valuable as your health, but that's exactly what you're putting at risk when you use household cleaners and laundry detergents filled with many of the hazardous chemicals on the market today. Most American homes contains 3-10 gallons of toxic materials, in the form of about 60 different kinds of hazardous household cleaning products. The very things you use to clean your house are actually the primary sources of toxins and indoor air pollution that Americans expose themselves to year after year. And unfortunately, many of the new "green" alternatives now being offered by major corporations are only “green” in name!

The Health Effects of Toxic Cleaning Products
The problem is, when the chemicals in these common household products hit your skin and lungs, they go directly into your bloodstream, bypassing your body's natural defense system against toxins (the liver and kidneys). This type of indoor pollution is particularly harmful to your health because just one application of a typical household cleaner can leave dangerous chemicals lingering in your indoor air for hours at a time. For people who spend a large amount of their day indoors, this can amount to a frequent chemical attacks on your lungs.

The Washington-based public advocacy group, the Environmental Working Group, also known as EWG, uses the power of information to protect human health and the environment. EWG’s Guide to Healthy Cleaning, which you can find on-line at, is a wonderful resource that can give you practical solutions to protect yourself and your family from everyday exposures to potentially harmful chemicals. Unfortunately, U.S. law allows manufacturers of cleaning products to use almost any ingredient they wish, including known carcinogens and substances that can harm fetal and infant development. And the government doesn’t review the safety of products before they’re sold. To fill those gaps, EWG’s staff scientists spent 14 months comparing the ingredients listed on cleaning product labels, websites and worker safety documents with the information available in the top government, industry, academic toxicity databases, and the scientific literature on health and environmental problems tied to cleaning products. EWG’s Guide to Healthy Cleaning reviews and rates more than 2,000 popular household cleaning products with grades A through F, based on the safety of their ingredients and the information they disclose about their contents. EWG’s Guide to Healthy Cleaning has found that hazardous industrial chemicals lurk in far too many bottles and boxes under Americans’ sinks and on laundry room shelves.

Here are EWG’s key scientific findings:

  1. Some 53% of cleaning products assessed by EWG contain ingredients known to harm the lungs. About 22 percent contain chemicals reported to cause asthma to develop in otherwise healthy individuals.
  2. Formaldehyde, a known human carcinogen, is sometimes used as a preservative or may be released by other preservatives in cleaning products. It may form when terpenes, found in citrus and pine oil cleaners and in some essential oils used as scents, react with ozone in the air.
  3. The chemical 1,4-dioxane, a suspected human carcinogen, is a common contaminant of widely-used detergent chemicals.
  4. Chloroform, a suspected human carcinogen, sometimes escapes in fumes released by products containing chlorine bleach.
  5. Quaternary ammonium compounds (“quats”) like benzalkonium chloride, found in antibacterial spray cleaners and fabric softeners, can cause asthma.
  6. Sodium borate, also known as borax, and boric acid are added to many products as cleaning agents or enzyme stabilizers, and can disrupt the hormone system.
  7. Many leading “green” brands sell superior products, among them Green Shield Organic and Whole Foods’ Green Mission brand. But not all cleaners marketed as environmentally conscious score high. Some “green” brands such as Earth Friendly Products do not disclose ingredients adequately.

EWG also recommends avoiding some products altogether because they’re unnecessary or there are no safer alternatives. Among them:

  1. Air fresheners contain secret fragrance mixtures that can trigger allergies and asthma. Open windows or use fans.
  2. Antibacterial products can spur development of drug-resistant superbugs.
  3. Fabric softener and dryer sheet ingredients can cause allergies or asthma and can irritate the lungs. Try a little vinegar in the rinse cycle.
  4. Caustic drain cleaners and oven cleaners can burn eyes and skin. Use a drain snake or plunger in drains. Try a do-it-yourself paste of baking soda and water in the oven.

“Natural” doesn’t mean non-toxic
Though plant-based ingredients don’t use petrochemicals, some plant-derived substances can cause allergic reactions. Some chemicals used in “green” product lines have not been thoroughly tested and get “Cs” for lack of safety data. The scarcity of solid data about risks associated with cleaning product contents underscores the need for reform of the federal Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976, to require safety testing of chemicals on the market. As consumers, we all have a right to know what is in our cleaning products and how those ingredients can affect our health. Ingredient labels are mandatory for food, cosmetics and drugs – but not for cleaning products. Manufacturers aren’t required to disclose all ingredients in their cleaners and many don’t, including some “green” cleaner makers.

EWG urges consumers to tell manufacturers and legislators they want these products labeled with a complete list of ingredients, including individual chemicals in fragrance and any impurities present. Just publishing ingredient information on the web or requiring consumers to telephone the company is not good enough.

How to Clean and Sanitize Without Harmful Chemicals
Some common household items, such as vinegar, baking soda, and lemon juice can get the job done just as well, sometimes even better, than their toxic counterparts. Here's a simple starter list of what you need to make your own natural cleaning products:
        Baking soda
        White vinegar
        Lemon juice
        Hydrogen peroxide
        Liquid castile soap
        Organic essential oils (optional)
        Mixing bowls
        Spray bottles
        Micro fiber cloths

For example, vinegar combined with hydrogen peroxide works exceptionally well as both a disinfectant and sanitizer. Cleaning mirrors and windows is as easy as adding a quarter-cup of white vinegar per quart of water. Add a few drops of liquid dish soap to the mixture if windows or mirrors are really dirty, but be very careful not to use any that contain harmful antibacterial substances. Most people know that baking soda is an ideal means to absorb odors in your refrigerator, but did you know it's also a real powerhouse when it comes to cleaning? Here are half a dozen examples of how plain and simple baking soda can replace dangerous commercial cleaning products in your home:

  1. Use as a safe non-scratch scrub -- for metals and porcelain.
  2. To clean your oven -- simply sprinkle a cup or more of baking soda over the bottom of the oven, then cover the baking soda with enough water to make a thick paste. Let the mixture set overnight. The next morning the grease will be easy to wipe up because the grime will have loosened, then wash the remaining residue from the oven with a wet sponge.
  3. To unclog a drain -- pour 1/2 - 1 cup of baking soda down the drain, then slowly pour 1/2 - 1 cup of vinegar in after it. Cover the drain and let it sit for 15 minutes. If it bubbles like a volcano, it means it's working as planned. Flush with a gallon of boiling water.
  4. Deodorize dry carpets -- by sprinkling liberally with baking soda. Wait at least 15 minutes, then vacuum.
  5. To rid your garbage disposal of foul smells -- add vinegar to water for ice cubes, then let a few of them get chopped by your disposal.
  6. To clean your silver -- boil 2-3 inches of water in a shallow pan with 1 teaspoon of salt, 1 teaspoon of baking soda, and a sheet of aluminum foil. Totally submerge silver and boil for 2-3 minutes more. Remove silver from the pan and wipe away the tarnish with a clean cotton cloth.

Genuine Green Products are Out There!
Dr. Bronner has long made a natural castile soap free of toxic chemicals. This is just one of many truly "green" products that available to consumers who want to avoid the glycol ethers and phthalates found in most cleaning and laundry products. Another great company that is looking out for your health and the environment is NaturOli; you can find them on-line at They make all-natural non-toxic cleaners and body care products from soap nuts. These berries are the fruit from a quite unique tree species, and their shells contain a substance called saponin that produces a soaping effect. Saponin is a 100% natural alternative to chemical laundry detergent and cleansers. It can replace many chemical detergents such as those containing sodium laureth sulphate (SLS) that are becoming well known by consumers for being a skin irritant and health hazard.

Final Thoughts on Green Cleaners
Don't be fooled by the marketing, or by ingredients that are purposely left off of labels.
The toxic chemicals listed above are found in a wide variety of everyday cleaners and detergents and pose a significant health risk. We are starting to see that now with increased and unexplained cancers, increased infertility and difficulty in reproduction, exploding neurological disorders, ADHD and autism in our children. These diseases are thought by many to be linked to environmental causes. And many of the toxic ingredients in cleaning products are among the suspected culprits. Remember, if you have trouble finding safe alternatives, there is nothing wrong with natural soap and water for cleaning most surfaces. It will take a little more elbow grease, and you'll have to rinse the soap off, but the benefit of avoiding toxic chemicals far outweighs any extra effort you might have to put in.