In this age of super-consumption, marketers have trained us to seek out the brands that that deliver superlative benefits over the competitors…” the tightest ship in the shipping industry”, “the ultimate driving machine”, “the greatest show on earth”, “the best a man can get”. We purchase these items thinking we are getting the most for our money, which will better our lives in some way. Sometimes more is not more. Consider household cleaning products.
“Industrial strength” is one marketing-infused brand attribute that suggests cleaning products will make our homes cleaner and that the job will be done faster, or cheaper, or all of the above. “Industrial strength” tells us the cleaning product is so strong that it really doesn’t belong in our homes. As consumers we are driven to want such products simply because we’re technically not supposed to have them! At least according to the marketers.
The truth is many ingredients in the common household cleaning products we’ve grown to trust are harmful to our health. As consumers why would we want such products around us, our families or our pets? The problem is, most consumers aren’t aware of the hidden dangers these popular cleaning products present to our health. Nor are they aware how pervasive these health threats are.
WHO IS AT RISK?Edit
Most products bear the warning “Keep Out of Reach of Children” in bold type on the label. As consumers, we believe that if our children don’t ingest the products they will not be harmed by them. Consider though that the most common methods of exposure are through the skin and respiratory tract. Children are frequently in contact with the chemical residues housecleaning products leave behind, by crawling, lying and sitting on the freshly cleaned floor. Children, especially infants and toddlers, frequently put their fingers in their mouths and noses, increasing risks for exposure. When infants eat solid food, how common is it that the food is placed directly on a high chair tray that has just been wiped down with a household cleaner or dish detergent? Another factor is that, pound for pound, childrens’ exposure levels are higher than adults’ because, although the amount of chemicals in an exposure remains equal, children’s bodies are smaller so the concentration is stronger, essentially. Also, their immune systems are still developing. Thus, children are probably the highest risk population for chemical exposures through cleaning products. For many of these same reasons, pets may also be at risk. Other populations with a pronounced risk are breast cancer victims, the elderly, asthma and allergy sufferers and those with compromised immune systems.
You may be thinking that the diluted aspect of off-the-shelf cleaning products reduces or altogether eliminates the threat of getting sick from your floor polish, window cleaner or air freshener. However many of the toxins found in these products (and so many other cleaning products) are bioaccumulative, meaning the chemicals do not purge easily from the body and over time even mild exposures can add up to toxic levels. In fact, a medical study recently conducted in Iowa suggests a correlation between certain occupations and bladder cancer. One of those occupations was cleaning services. These products are used repeatedly and routinely in the home to maintain cleanliness, increasing the chances for bioaccumulation of chemicals in the body.
WHAT MAY BE LURKING UNDER THE KITCHEN SINK?Edit
Research points to the toxic effects of not only active but also inactive ingredients – hazards that can affect the central nervous system, reproductive systems and other vital bodily systems. Consumers often don’t have the time or know where to go to find important information about the products they use. To make matters worse, the information is often presented in highly scientific language that may be difficult to interpret. But there are a growing number of consumer-friendly resources that can help us sort through all of this information and understand what we need to know to make the best possible choices for our families with regard to household cleaners, disinfectants and polishes.
For starters, the three essential categories into which most of the hazardous ingredients in household cleaning products fall are:
- Carcinogens – Carcinogens cause cancer and/or promote cancer’s growth.
- Endocrine disruptors – Endocrine disruptors mimic human hormones, confusing the body with false signals. Exposure to endocrine disruptors can lead to numerous health concerns including reproductive, developmental, growth and behavior problems. Endocrine disruptors have been linked to reduced fertility, premature puberty, miscarriage, menstrual problems, challenged immune systems, abnormal prostate size, ADHD, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and certain cancers.
- Neurotoxins – Neurotoxins alter neurons, affecting brain activity, causing a range of problems from headaches to loss of intellect.
TAKING CUES FROM PRODUCT LABELSEdit
Consumers may find it cumbersome or time-consuming to research all of the ingredients in the cleaning products under the kitchen sink. Those that wish to will find useful links in the sidebar to this article. In general however, product warning labels can be a useful first line of defense. Cleaning products are required by law to include label warnings if harmful ingredients are included.
From safest to most dangerous, the warning signals are:
- Caution - One ounce to one pint may be harmful or fatal to a 180-pound male
- Warning - One teaspoon to one ounce may be harmful or fatal to a 180-pound male
- Danger - One taste to one teaspoon is fatal to a 180-pound male
WHICH CHEMICAL GROUPS CAUSE CONCERN IN THE HEALTH COMMUNITY?Edit
We are exposed to countless chemical ingredients in daily life that may be harmful to our health – too numerous to outline here and beyond the scope of this article. Consumers should know of some general categories of chemicals that should be avoided, however. The following list is not all-inclusive.
Pesticides. One of the most counter-intuitive health threats is that of products that disinfect. Common sense tells us that killing household germs protects our health. However disinfectants are pesticides, and the ingredients in pesticides often include carcinogens and endocrine disruptors. Pesticides are fat-soluble, making them difficult to eliminate from the body once ingested. Pesticides, including disinfectants, may also include alkylphenol ethoxylates (APEs).
APEs. APEs act as surfactants, meaning they lower the surface tension of liquids and help cleaning solutions spread more easily over the surface to be cleaned and penetrate solids. APEs are found in detergents, disinfectants, all-purpose cleaners and laundry cleansers. They are also found in many self-care items including spermicides, sanitary towels and disposable diapers. APEs are endocrine disruptors.
Formaldehyde. Formaldehyde is commonly known as a preservative. Many people do not know that it is also a germicide, bactericide and fungicide, among other functions. Formaldehyde is found in household cleaners and disinfectants. It is also present in nail polish and other personal care products. Formaldehyde is a carcinogen.
Organochlorines. Organochlorines result from the combination of H and C. Some types are highly deadly, such as DDT. OCs are bioaccumulative and also highly persistent in the environment. OCs are present in pesticides, detergents, de-greasers and bleaches. OCs are also present in drycleaning fluids. OCs are carcinogens and endocrine disruptors.
Styrene. Styrene is a naturally occurring substance derived from the styrax tree. Styrene is most commonly used in the manufacture of numerous plastics including plastic food wrap, insulated cups, carpet backing and PVC piping. Styrene is also found in floor waxes and polishes and metal cleaners. Styrene is a known carcinogen as well as an endocrine disruptor. Exposure may affect the central nervous system, liver and reproductive system.
Phthalates. Phthalates are most commonly used in the manufacture of plastics. Phthalates are also used as carriers for perfumes and air fresheners and as skin penetration enhancers for products such as moisturizers. These chemicals are classified as inert and as such no product-labeling requirements exist for phthalates. They are endocrine disruptors and suspected carcinogens. Phthalates are known to cause hormonal abnormalities, thyroid disorders, birth defects and reproductive problems.
Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs). VOCs are emitted as gases suspending themselves in the air. VOCs include an array of chemicals, some of which may have short- and long-term adverse health effects, and are present in perfumes, air fresheners, disinfectants and deodorizers. VOCs commonly include propane, butane, ethanol, phthalates and/or formaldehyde. These compounds pose a variety of human health hazards and collectively are thought to be reproductive toxins, neurotoxins, liver toxins and carcinogens.
SYMPTOMS OF EXPOSUREEdit
Symptoms of exposure to these types of substances include headache, backache, stiff joints, nausea, diarrhea, asthma or allergy attacks, dizziness, memory loss, stuttering, premature puberty, low sperm count, reduced motor skills, sudden mood swings, dyslexia, ADHD, anti-social behavior/autism and birth defects, among others.
CHEMICALS OF INTERESTEdit
To demonstrate an idea of how pervasive these substances can be under your kitchen sink, 2-butoxyethanol is a good example. Although the signal word for this chemical is “Danger!”, it is found in no less than 108 household cleaning products as well as countless auto, hobby/craft and exterior home maintenance products, according to Household Products Database from the National Library of Medicine. Synonyms for this chemical include butoxyethanol; butyl cellosolve; ethanol, 2-butoxy-; ethylene glycol mono-n-butyl ether (EGBE); ethylene glycol monobutyl ether; monobutyl ethylene glycol ether; n-Butoxyethanol. This chemical is an organic solvent, and a raw material used in the production of phthalates. Some products that claim to be green include this ingredient!
According to the Material Safety Data Sheet from one leading trigger spray cleaner degreaser, exposure to this chemical is reportedly associated with chronic blood and bone marrow damage. It affects the central nervous system, blood and blood-forming organs, kidneys, liver and lymphoid system. It is an eye and skin irritant. Exposure is generally through the lungs, skin, and mouth with 75% of total exposure attributable to the skin. Even vapors from this chemical can be absorbed by the skin. Under existing EPA guidelines, this chemical is considered a neurotoxin and a possible human carcinogen and has been found to cause cancer in animal testing. Symptoms of exposure to 2-butoxyethanol include central nervous depression, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and prominent headache.
To avoid unnecessary exposure to this chemical, use rubber gloves when cleaning with products containing 2-butoxyethanol, ventilate the work area well and/or mask the mouth and nose appropriately. More favorably, avoid products containing this ingredient. It is important to stress that even products that may be perceived as healthy because their names include the words “green”, “citrus”, “lemon” or “orange” may contain this ingredient. The best advice is to read the ingredient label rather than trust the product name or marketing language.
Another harmful ingredient to watch out for is monoethanolamine, also known as MEA. Other synonyms for this chemical are Ethanolamine; Ethanol, 2-amino-; 2-Aminoethanol; 2-Hydroxyethanamine.
This chemical is a surfactant and an emulsifier and can be found in nearly 50 household cleaning products including floor cleaners, tile and grout cleaners, degreasers, stainless steel cleaners and laundry detergents. Additionally, this APE is found in 100 personal care products listed in the Household Products Database, especially consumer hair coloring products. MEA is also an antihistamine found in several popular over the counter drugs, the sedating powers of which are stronger than many barbiturates. As a cleansing ingredient, MEA is highly corrosive to the skin, potentially even causing bleeding to the exposed area. Inhalation may cause asthma attacks or damage the respiratory tract or lungs. MEA is potentially a neurotoxin. Repeated exposure to MEA can damage the liver and kidneys and has proven toxic in animal lab tests. One leading global chemical company admits the body of available research is insufficient to fully determine the health risks for humans.
HOW CAN CONSUMERS MAKE HEALTHIER CHOICES FOR THEIR HOMES AND FAMILIES?Edit
It is truly amazing that all these harmful ingredients are present in products that are supposed to improve our quality of life. Under the Federal Hazardous Substances Act, household cleaners are the only household products for which manufacturers are NOT required to list all ingredients. Certain ingredients (such as fragrances) are considered trade secrets and government regulations are designed to protect proprietary information. Without full disclosure, consumers can unknowingly submit themselves and their families to unhealthy exposures to these chemicals.
The safest course of action a consumer can take is to inform him or herself. Here are some suggestions:
- Read product labels. Don’t use products with a signal word stronger than “Caution”.
- Research the chemicals listed on product labels through the Household Products Database (http://www.householdproducts.nlm.nih.gov), the Cosmetics Database (http://www.cosmeticsdatabase.com), Toxnet (http://www.toxnet.nlm.nih.gov) and Scorecard (http://www.scorecard.org).
- Avoid products with fragrances. A clean home should smell like nothing at all.
- Use homemade cleaning solutions made from good, old-fashioned common ingredients such as vinegar, baking soda, washing soda, lemon juice and borax.
- Find and purchase cleaning solutions that bear the Green Seal logo. Green Seal certifies cleaning products to be effective at cleaning yet safer for human health and the environment
- Interview cleaning services and hire one that is Green Clean Certified. Many national cleaning services and local cleaning companies are now making the switch to green products, but ask exactly what they are using. Local companies using green practices include Castle Keepers in Charleston, SC; and Scottsdale Maids in Scottsdale, AZ.
- Make sure the cleaning supplies that are used by your cleaning service or by used are recogized as being free of toxins 
Taking a greener approach to cleaning can help you feel better physically. But you’ll probably also feel better mentally, knowing you are creating a safer environment for yourself, your family and your pets.
- Perchloroethylene or “PERC”
- Quarternary Ammonium Compounds, or “QUATS”
- Sodium Hydroxide