By Stephen T. Sinatra, M.D., F.A.C.C., F.A.C.N., C.N.S., C.B.T.
We live in an ultra-hygienic society. We often find hand sanitizing cloths at the entrance of stores we shop in so we may conveniently avoid “germs” left behind on the cart someone else just pushed around. We paper public toilet seats and plug chemical air fresheners into each room to mask everyday odors. Without getting into how industry advertising has contributed to an antiseptic America, it’s safe to say that health is one of the primary reasons we cite to justify sterilizing our homes with the numerous, specialized cleaning products on the market today. Ironically, many common household cleaning products pose greater health hazards than the germs, dust, and stains they are designed to get rid of.
In the name of a sanitary home or workplace, we may repeatedly expose ourselves to toxic, or otherwise irritating, chemicals contained within the many household cleaners that we inhale or absorb through the skin. While we risk acute toxicity when using products like chlorine bleach and ammonia, we also may unknowingly expose ourselves to less obvious hazards through long-term, repeated use of common household products. These under-the-radar toxins pose a more insidious risk: they may contribute to chronic, long-term health effects like hormone disruption or cancer.
Acute Toxicity of Cleaning Products
According to the 26th Annual Report of the American Association of Poison Control Centers, there were approximately 2.5 million human exposures reported to U.S. poison centers in 2008.1Household cleaning substances were the third most common agent reported, accounting for 8.6 percent of all adult exposures and 9.7 percent of exposures in children (totaling almost 340,000 exposures). Although most of the reported exposures were due to ingestion of a cleaning substance, almost 20 percent of the cases involved exposure through the skin, respiratory tract or eyes. The most commonly reported perpetrators included dishwashing detergents, bleaches, laundry detergents, glass cleaners, drain cleaners, toilet bowl cleaners, and wall/floor cleaners. Whether ingested, inhaled, or absorbed through the skin or eyes, these products all raised cause for concern.
Not all acutely toxic cleaning products bear bright skull-and-crossbones stickers indicating poisonous potential. Sometimes warnings of toxicity which results from particular product combinations is buried in the fine print. For example, chlorine bleach and ammonia, when utilized separately, may produce fumes which can irritate your eyes and respiratory tract. When combined together or with substances like lye, though, they are acutely toxic and can cause lung damage. With immediate effects, acutely toxic products are usually the ones reported to poison centers.
Chronically Toxic Household Cleaning Products
Chronically toxic cleaning products are those that, through repeated use, place us at risk for developmental health effects like cancer. While some substances may be inherently carcinogenic (cause cancer by disrupting cellular metabolism or damaging DNA), the combination of otherwise innocuous substances may cause the formation of a carcinogen.
For example, products which contain the unfortunate combination of sudsing agents like DEA (diethanolamine) or TEA (triethanolamine) with nitrates (often found in preservatives or contaminants) form nitrosamines. Found in cigarette smoke, nitrosamines may also lurk in cosmetics, personal hygiene products, and sunscreens. They have been linked to allergies, endocrine disruption, neurotoxicity, reproductive toxicity and even cancer; they are tumor initiators, which means they can initiate tumor formation in high doses or in low doses when combined with tumor promoters like estrogen, saccharine or sodium lauryl sulfate (a surfactant found in cleaners).
Some cleansers may also contain butyl cellosolve (also known as ethylene glycol monobutyl ether), which may be a neurotoxin. Cleaners made with ethoxylated alcohols may contain 1.4-dioxane, a known eye and respiratory tract irritant and possible central nervous system, liver and kidney toxin. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has classified 1.4-dioxine as a “probable human carcinogen.”2
Cleaning products, especially those with fragrances, may also contain chemicals which mimic or block hormones such as estrogen, androgens and thyroid in the body, and can disrupt hormone function. Such chemicals are linked with breast cancer, infertility, and even reproductive effects in the male fetus. Some chemicals in synthetic fragrances have also been linked to carcinogenicity and neurotoxicity in lab animals.3When inhaled or absorbed through the skin, such fragrances may also induce symptoms of acute toxicity. Sneezing, watery eyes and respiratory irritation are common reactions, especially in people with allergies or asthma, or those who are more chemically sensitive.
There’s Something Rotten in Denmark
Fragrances, themselves, such as those found in laundry detergents and fabric softeners or perfumes, are of particular concern because we most often don’t know what’s in them. Manufacturers aren’t legally required to list the hundreds of chemicals which may make up a fragrance; most of the time, “fragrance,” or “perfume,” is all that is required. Protection of trade secrets and other commercial interests currently trumps public health needs when it comes to fragrances, and consumers are, sadly, left in the dark.
In our efforts to cover up smells natural to our bodies, pets, or kitchens, we may be polluting ourselves with an unknown quantity of toxic chemicals. In a chemical analysis of three bestselling air fresheners and three bestselling laundry supplies, researchers discovered nearly 100 Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs), or primary pollutants, 10 of which are classified as toxic or hazardous under federal law. None of these VOCs appeared on the product labels. Some fragrances also contain secondary pollutants, and generate formaldehyde and ultrafine particles when reacting with ozone in indoor air. The National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health has determined that one-third of all substances used by fragrance manufacturers are toxic.4
Avoid These Common Toxins in Household Cleaning Products
Finding Safer Commercial Cleaning Products
The good news is that there are several brands of non-toxic, biodegradable cleaning products available on the market today. They can usually be found in specialty, if not larger-chain grocery stores or superstores (e.g. Target). If you can’t find them in your local shop, ask the merchant to stock the shelves with healthier products (demand and they shall supply).
Some safer, greener brands I’m aware of include:
- Seventh Generation
- Ecostore USA
- Earth Friendly Products
- Aubrey Organics
If you have the inclination, you can make your own cleaning products. Not only is this an economically sound option (most ingredient combinations prove less expensive than commercially produced products), but it affords you the most control in protecting your loved ones from toxic assailants masking as germ-busters. The following recipes contain basic ingredients, most of which can be found in your kitchen, with which you can use alone or combine into a cleaning kit to suit your individual cleaning needs. Although not guaranteed to be 100 percent non-toxic, they are sure to be much safer alternatives to most commercial products. Use caution when trying a new homemade product for the first time; try testing it out in a small area first before cleaning your house top-to-bottom.
The basics include:
- Baking soda – not only can you use it to brush your teeth or to absorb odors from your refrigerator, baking soda can be used as a scouring agent to clean and deodorize most hard surfaces in your bathroom and kitchen. Use it also to remove scuffs and dirt from walls and painted surfaces with a sponge, to scrub pots and pans, and sprinkle on carpets to deodorize them several minutes before vacuuming.
- Soap – liquid, powdered or bar soap (which you can grate and dissolve in hot water) that is free of synthetic scents, colors or other additives is a completely non-toxic and biodegradable cleaning agent (for the house and skin).
- White vinegar – dissolves dirt, hard water stains and soap scum. A mixture of vinegar and water is great for cleaning glass and surfaces in your kitchen and bathroom (avoid using vinegar too often to clean caulked surfaces, though, as it can degrade them).
- Lemon juice – can help cut grease on surfaces while freshening your home or office. Especially effective in the kitchen or bathroom, lemon juice is antibacterial and is a good mold- and mildew-buster.
- Tea tree oil – this essential oil may be on the expensive side, but a little goes a long way. Tea tree oil is a powerful, natural antiseptic with antibacterial, antifungal, antiviral, and antiprotozoal activity. Mix a teaspoon or two into a spray bottle of water and use to disinfect as well as get rid of mold and mildew.
- Borax – you can find Borax, or sodium borate, in the laundry-product section of the grocery store. Borax is a great disinfectant and deodorizing agent that also softens water.
- Washing soda – also known as sodium carbonate or soda ash, washing soda may be available in the laundry-product section of the market. This mineral can be used to disinfect, cut grease, take out stains, and as a water softener. As washing soda can irritate mucous membranes, use sparingly. Avoid using on fiberglass or aluminum surfaces and no-wax floors.
The following recipes serve as suggestions. Mix and match preferred ingredients and double or triple the recipes to suit your individual cleaning needs. Store in plastic spray bottles or, better yet, empty glass jars. Mix them well, don’t forget to label them, and keep them out of children’s reach.
- All-purpose cleaner – mix 1/2 gallon of water with 1/4 cup baking soda (or one tsp of Borax), lemon juice or 1/2 cup vinegar, and possibly soap. Store and use for removing water deposit stains in bathroom surfaces and on windows.
- Glass cleaner – mix 2 tsp white vinegar with 1 liter of warm water. Add rubbing alcohol for a streak-free shine.
- Shower/tub/sink/stovetop cleaner – for general cleaning, simply sprinkle baking soda on the wet sponge or bathroom surface and scrub; add soap if you wish. For stained, moldy, or mildewed surfaces, scrub first with lemon juice or vinegar (remember that vinegar can break down tile grout over time, so use sparingly).
- Toilet-bowl cleaner – mix 1/4 cup of baking soda and 1 cup vinegar, pour in toilet bowl, and leave it for a few minutes before scrubbing. Alternately, use 1 part lemon juice mixed with 3 parts Borax.
- Tile / vinyl, linoleum floor cleaner – mix 1 cup vinegar with 1 gallon of warm water. Add a few tsp of Borax for tougher jobs.
- Wood floor cleaner – mix 1 part vinegar or lemon juice with 1 part vegetable oil & apply to floor (at the risk of the room smelling like salad dressing; also remember that vinegar and lemon juice are acidic, so don’t wash hardwood floors too often); another option is to fill a spray bottle with water and add a few drops of unscented liquid soap. For painted wood, mix 1 tsp washing soda with 1 gallon hot water.
- Laundry detergent – mix 1 cup soap with 1/2 cup washing soda and 1/2 cup borax. Use 1 Tbsp for smaller, and 2 Tbsp for larger, loads.
- Dishwasher soap – mix equal parts washing soda and borax and use in place of commercial detergent. Use more washing soda if your water is hard.
- Disinfectant – mix 3 cups of hot water with 3 tsp of Borax and 4 Tbsp of vinegar or lemon juice. For antibacterial action add tea tree oil, and for more cleansing, add soap. Less, but not non-toxic, rubbing alcohol is another alternative.
- Furniture polish – use warm water with a few drops of lemon oil on varnished wood, then dry with a soft cotton cloth. For unfinished wood, mix 1 part olive oil with 1 part lemon juice and apply with soft cotton cloth.
- Metal polish – not only are salt and vinegar a tasty combination on French fries and potato chips (which, of course, you should avoid), but they can be used to clean copper, as can a mixture of baking soda and lemon juice. Vinegar alone is great for stainless steel and chrome.
- Drain cleaner – for light clogs, add 1/2 cup salt to 4 liters of hot water and pour down the drain. For heavier jobs, directly pour 1/2 cup baking soda, then 1/2 cup vinegar down the drain to create a reaction that will break down some clogs; wait 15 minutes, then pour boiling hot water down the drain to wash away cleansing agents. You can also use 1/2 cup Borax followed by boiling water. It’s important to use these latter two options only in metal pipes, as boiling water can melt plastic tubing. Also, be sure not to try the baking soda / vinegar mixture immediately after using a commercial drain cleaner, or you may risk exposure to toxic fumes.
- Air freshener – rather than chemical sprays or plug-ins, try simmering water with cinnamon sticks, cloves and orange peels on the stove. Keep many house plants. Sprinkle baking soda at the bottom of trash cans, and keep small bowls of baking soda or vinegar in corners of the home to absorb odors. Grind small pieces of orange or lemon rind in the garbage disposal.
Remember also to vacuum with a HEPA filter, as it can trap small particles which can cause allergy symptoms and respiratory distress.
1. Bronstein AC, Spyker DA, et.al. “2008 Annual Report of the American Association of Poison Control Centers’ National Poison Data System (NPDS): 26th Annual Report.”Clinical Toxicology (2009) 47, 911–1084.
2.U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Technology Transfer Network Air Toxics Web Site. “1,4-Dioxane (1,4-Diethyleneoxide).”
3. Campaign for Safe Cosmetics and Environmental Working Group, “Not so Sexy: the Health Risks of Secret Chemicals in Fragrance.” Safecosmetics.org, May 2010.
Additional References and Resources:
- The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics web site. “Nitrosamines.”
- Steinemann AC. “Fragranced consumer products and undisclosed ingredients,” Environ Impact Asses Rev (2008), doi:10.1016/j.eiar.2008.05.002
- The U.S. EPA web site. “An Introduction to Environmental Air Quality: Volatile Organic Compounds“; also find links to other useful sites.
- Organic Consumer Association, “How Toxic are Your Household Cleaning Supplies?” at http://www.organicconsumers.org/articles/article_279.cfm
- Pollution Information: Chemical Profile Search, Scorecard.com
- U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services, Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry
- U.S. National Library of Medicine: TOXNET: Toxology Data Network
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