Natural Life Magazine

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What's the Dirt on Household Cleaners?
by Wendy Priesnitz

Toxic Household Cleaning ProductsQ: Which household cleaning products for sale in the supermarket are green?

A: Actually, making your own is greener, cheaper and healthier...and not difficult! A leading laundry soap has more than 400 ingredients, but in North America, the manufacturer can call them a “trade secret” and doesn’t have to list them on the box. (In Europe, manufacturers must tell you if a product contains a carcinogen or other harmful ingredient.) If a manufacturer won’t tell you what’s in the product, why should you trust it to be safe to clean the bathtub in which you bathe your children, the clothes that your family wears or the dishes on which you eat your food? These products contain some exceedingly nasty ingredients and they’re tested by the manufacturers, not the government, prior to being unleashed into our homes.

As with the antibacterial soaps, cosmetics and air cleaners we’ve discussed in this column in the past, there are known health effects from many of the chemicals commonly used in household cleaning and laundry products. Animal studies have shown reproductive harm – testicular damage, reduced fertility, maternal toxicity, early embryonic death and birth defects. Some of the ingredients are proven carcinogens.

Glass cleaners and laundry detergents commonly contain phthalates, which are used as carriers for fragrance. Phthalates have been linked to increased allergic symptoms and asthma in children; some phthalates are also known endocrine disruptors and have been linked to birth defects.

Many glass cleaners and all-purpose spray cleaners also contain glycol ethers, such as 2-butoxyethanol. These solvents have been associated with low birth weight in exposed mice.

Alkyl phenol ethoxylates (APEs) and nonylphenol ethoxylates (NPEs) are surfactants found in laundry detergents, stain removers and all-purpose cleaners. They have been shown to reduce embryo survival in fish and to alter tadpole development.

Monoethanolamine (MEA), a surfactant found in some laundry detergents, all-purpose cleaners and floor cleaners, is a known inducer of occupational asthma. Disinfectants called ammonium quaternary compounds, found in both sprays and toilet cleaners, have also been identified as inducers of occupational asthma. A number of studies published in the medical journal Thorax over the past decade have linked regular exposure to cleaning chemicals to asthma, both in school children and in professional cleaners.

Some carpet and upholstery shampoos include perchlorethylene, which is a known carcinogen that damages the liver, kidney and nervous system. Another common ingredient is ammonium hydroxide, which is corrosive and extremely irritable to eyes, skin and respiratory passages.

Oven cleaners are among the most dangerous chemical cleaners. They typically contain sodium hydroxide (a derivative of lye), which is so corrosive it cause severe skin damage. They also contain benzene, toluene, xylene, methanol and ethylbenzene, which are all known carcinogens and damaging to the nervous system and unborn children. What’s worse is that the residue from these cleaners hangs around, releasing toxic fumes into the air and food when the oven is heated.

Most drain cleaners contain lye, hydrochloric acid or trichloroethane. Hydrochloric acid is corrosive, an eye and skin irritant, and damages kidneys, liver and the digestive tract. Trichloroethane is a nervous system depressant that has been proven to damage the liver and kidneys.

Furniture polish often contains petroleum distillate, which can cause skin and lung cancer, as well as other nasty ingredients. And so the story goes, on through each product designed to clean each part of your home.

In previous articles in Natural Life Magazine, we’ve seen that children, the elderly and those with already compromised immune systems are more vulnerable to the harmful effects of chemicals in personal care and household products. However, we also need to be aware of the cumulative impacts from all of the chemicals in our lives, because we aren’t exposed to cleaning products, air fresheners, perfume, cosmetics, textile treatments, pesticides in food, outdoor air pollution like car exhaust and so on in isolation. We really have no idea what all these chemicals do in combination with each other!

That’s why it’s important to take precautions whenever we can and avoid whatever chemicals we can. Fortunately, that’s easy when it comes to cleaning our homes.

First of all, we could consider lowering our standards so that our whites don’t have to be so white and our homes can be a little less than hospital clean. Our immune systems can usually handle that and, in fact, would probably benefit. Another change we could make is to slow down a bit. One of the standards for commercial cleaning products is the speed at which they cut grease and remove stains; substituting a little more time and elbow grease for those heavy duty chemicals and your family will be healthier.

And that brings us to making our own cleaners using common (and benign) household ingredients. In many cases, they clean just as well as the commercial products, are much less expensive, are healthier and don’t pollute the environment.

A group called Women’s Voices for the Earth has come up with the idea of Green Cleaning Parties, which have been tagged as 21st century Tupperware parties where you BYOJ (bring your own jars). A group of people get together to whip up a batch of home-made household cleaners using ingredients like vinegar, water, baking soda, castile soap, and glycerin. Then they split up the batch and take them home in their own glass jars.

If you want to use commercial products, choose only those that list their ingredients on their labels (keeping in mind that there is no requirement for this and that the list could be incomplete). Greenwashing is rampant in this industry. That is where companies try to make themselves look good by claiming to be healthy and green, but actually are not. So don’t be caught off-guard by green labels with the words “natural,” “eco” or “pure” because those words are meaningless if not backed up with an ingredient list. You should even be suspicious of the term “organic” if it’s not backed up by a certification program. And it goes without saying that you should avoid explosive or poisonous symbols on the label, which means there is probably at least one chemical in the product. Another indication of the presence of chemicals is a warning to use the product in a well-ventilated area.

Although manufacturers and distributors are not legally required to tell consumers what’s in cleaning products in North America, they must provide information about chemicals used in the workplace. This is done via a Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS). You can often find out what’s in your favorite product by typing “MSDS” plus your favorite product’s name into an Internet search engine.

You can at least partially avoid harm from chemical ingredients by streamlining your cleaning cupboard. Use fewer products, and less of them. You do not need a different product for every room in your house, so choose one or two and you’ll find they clean things they might not be sold to clean.

Whether you make your own or demand that companies make safe products, getting rid of that cleaning pail of toxic waste is healthy for your family and the environment. And that’s a small price to pay.

Do-It-Yourself House Cleaning Alternatives

You can avoid using those products, and save money too, by making your own natural cleaning supplies at home using common, food-grade materials.

  • Salt will take out wine or fruit stains.
  • Club soda will remove lighter colored stains.
  • Baking soda and cornstarch make good deodorizers.
  • Clean your oven with a paste of baking soda, salt, and water.
  • One part water to one part vinegar in a spray bottle will clean most areas of your home.
  • Remove toilet bowl stains with vinegar.

All-Purpose Cleaner
2 cups white distilled vinegar
2 cups water
20 drops of essential oil (optional)
Warming until lukewarm will boost cleaning power for tough jobs. Useful for countertops, appliances, windows, mirrors.

Creamy Scrub Cleanser
2 cups baking soda
cup liquid castile soap
4 teaspoons vegetable glycerin (optional but acts as a preservative)
5 drops antibacterial essential oil such as lavender, tea tree, rosemary (optional)
Stores up to two years in a sealed glass jar. For exceptionally tough jobs, spray with vinegar first, let sit and follow with scrub. Great for kitchen counters, stoves, bathroom sinks.

Furniture Polish
cup white vinegar
a few drops of olive oil
2 teaspoons lemon juice
Store in refrigerator. Shake well before using. Dip a clean, dry cloth into the polish and rub wood in the direction of the grain.

Drain Opener
cup baking soda
cup white vinegar
Pour baking soda down the drain and follow with vinegar. Cover and let sit for at least 30 minutes. Flush with boiling water. Repeat if necessary

Although many of our readers like to use Borax in their handmade cleaning products - especially for laundry - it can be toxic and has been recently classified as a reproductive toxin. Sufficient exposure to borax dust can cause respiratory and skin irritation. Ingestion may cause gastrointestinal distress including nausea, persistent vomiting, abdominal pain, and diarrhea. So we do not recommend its use.

The use of essential oils is controversial and not necessary to the effectiveness of these formulations. Exposure can cause breathing problems for children and for some people with asthma or other respiratory problems or sensitivities. Most sources say that pregnant and nursing women should avoid many essential oils. Additionally, many of the plants used to make essential oils are gathered from the wild, which is decimating some species, such as rosewood and sandalwood.

Wendy Priesnitz is Natural Life's Editor. This article is an update to one first published in Natural Life Magazine in 1981 and is based on reader input since then. We welcome your green and healthy home cleaning tips for inclusion in future updates. More information on this topic is available in Natural Life Magazine's new Green & Healthy Homes book.


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