There’s nothing quite like the feel of a freshly cleaned home, and no time quite like spring for an old-fashioned deep cleaning. But some of the cleaning products you purchase may actually pose health risks for you and the planet. Here’s a look at some of the health and environmental impacts that some common household cleaners may have, and how you can make smarter choices when it comes to cleaning your home.
Chemical Cleaners Place a Toxic Burden on the Planet
As the environment becomes increasingly contaminated by chemical pollution, we encounter more and more pollution in our daily lives. Many of the chemical cleaners made today—particularly petroleum-based products—don’t degrade as easily or quickly natural materials do. And when these products do break down, they leave behind trace substances that can remain in the air, water, and soil for a long time.
Petroleum-based products are especially troublesome because petroleum is a non-renewable resource that causes pollution when we drill for it, manufacture it, use it, and dispose of it. But petrochemicals are only part of the problem. Other toxic substances lurking in our household cleaners are also concerning when it comes to our health.
How Chemical Exposure Affects Our Health
We’re exposed to chemicals in our homes on a consistent and continual basis. Chemicals from household products can be inhaled, ingested, or even absorbed via skin contact. Although the greatest exposure occurs when we’re actually using a chemical-based product—say, cleaning windows, for example—our contact with these chemicals extends far longer than the time it takes to complete the activity. Residues can remain on our clothing and on surfaces where we work and eat, and many chemicals stick around in the air we breathe.
Did you know that indoor air pollution can be up to 10 times worse than outdoor air pollution? In fact, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) lists indoor air pollution among the top five environmental health risks. Closed spaces enable pollutants to accumulate more rapidly, and to remain for longer periods. Household cleaners are one potentially hazardous source of chemical pollutants that degrade air quality.
Acute health effects that may occur from a single exposure to a chemical or chemicals include poisonings, burns, and allergic reactions. Repeated low-level exposure to chemicals over a long period may result in chronic adverse health effects. Oftentimes in those cases, symptoms don’t appear for months, years or even decades—and during that time, many other possible causes factor in, making a diagnosis that points to a chemical cause very difficult. But what we do know for sure is that certain compounds regularly seen in household cleaners aren’t good for our health. Here are just a few examples.
The primary function of solvents is to dissolve grease and grime. They’re designed to dry quickly, which, from a product performance viewpoint, makes them extremely efficient. However, because solvents are highly volatile (easily evaporated), that means we’re exposed to these chemicals when we inhale their vapors.
Solvents can severely irritate the eyes, skin, and mucous membranes. They’re typically found in oven cleaners, all-purpose cleaners, furniture, floor and metal polishes, glass cleaners, spot removers, and air fresheners.
Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs)
Most solvents can also be classified as volatile organic compounds. VOCs are highly toxic and are a major cause of air pollution, both indoors and out. And VOCs have consistently been found at significantly higher concentrations—up to ten times greater—indoors than outdoors.
VOCs released when using household cleaners may contribute to chronic respiratory problems, allergic reactions, and headaches. VOCs are found in most commercial household cleaners.
Relatively little is known about the composition of fragranced consumer products, which is largely because they haven’t been studied and tested extensively. However, adverse health reactions to fragranced products appear to be on the rise.
A number of animal studies on air fresheners and fragranced household products discovered adverse health effects that ranged from pulmonary (lung) irritation to decreased ability to exhale and sensory irritation when the animals were exposed to the same level of chemicals as humans at normal product usage rates. One such study investigating VOC emissions from 25 common fragranced household products, some of which were labeled “green,” found 133 different VOCs emitted. Of the 133 VOCs, 24 were classified as toxic or hazardous under federal laws—but only 1 was listed on a product label.
Synthetic fragrances are found in household cleaners ranging from dishwashing detergent to air fresheners.
Most Cleaners Considered Safe Until Proven Dangerous
One of the foremost problems facing consumers who want to clean “greener” is that it’s difficult to tell which products are safe for our homes and the environment. Because manufacturers of household cleaners aren’t legally required to disclose all product ingredients on the product itself, for example, that means the presence of many potentially health-threatening chemicals can’t be confirmed by simply reading a label. Furthermore, the EPA doesn’t require unbiased 3rd party safety testing for most household cleaning products, apart from disinfectants and sanitizers, which are classified and regulated as pesticides.
Warning labels, too, are woefully inadequate, thanks to a lack of toxicity data for many of the chemicals used in household cleaners. Finally, lenient labeling laws allow manufacturers to print broad-based warnings that encompass both acute and chronic dangers, making it nearly impossible for consumers to understand what the real health risks are.
One of the easiest and most effective steps you can take to improve indoor air quality in your home is to replace toxic cleaning products with natural cleaning solutions. In addition to improving air quality both indoors and out, replacing chemical cleaners can help reduce water and soil pollution. If you want to continue to buy commercial cleaners, choose products that are labeled biodegradable and nontoxic, and buy in bulk to reduce waste. Keep in mind that cleaners labeled “natural” or “green” aren’t necessarily safer than other household cleaning products.
Make Your Own Nontoxic Household Cleaners
You can also make your own cleaning products with recognizable, nontoxic ingredients, many of which you may already have in your pantry. The following solutions will help you eliminate chemical cleaners from your home without sacrificing effectiveness. Here’s how to make them yourself.
Mix one part olive oil to four parts water. Dispense into a spray bottle and shake vigorously to combine. Spray onto wood surfaces and use a soft cloth to wipe clean.
Regular ventilation is one of the best ways to freshen stale air and ensure that indoor pollutants, including mold, don’t accumulate and reach harmful levels. So open your windows and let fresh air in!
- Essential plant oils such as lavender oil, eucalyptus oil and citrus oils make excellent air fresheners. Try adding a few drops to your homemade cleaning solutions or adding a drop to your light bulbs.
- Baking soda and borax absorb odors without harmful chemicals. Vinegar and hydrogen peroxide disinfect surfaces while inhibiting the spread of smelly microbes.
Sprinkle a layer of baking soda on the surface to be cleaned. Spray with water until damp, and clean with a soft cloth. For tough messes, leave the solution on for an hour or longer (or even overnight) before cleaning and scrub with a stiff brush. Add a sprinkling of kosher salt for heavy-duty scrubbing. Keep a bucket of water nearby to rinse out your cloth or brush.
This solution works well for everything from stainless steel appliances to cutting boards, ovens, stovetops, and microwaves.
Combine two teaspoons of borax, half a teaspoon of liquid soap and one cup of hot water in a spray bottle and shake vigorously. This recipe can easily be doubled and will keep indefinitely. You may need to wipe the surface with a damp cloth to remove any residue.
Mix a quarter cup of white vinegar with a gallon of water. Pour into a spray bottle and clean glass with a reusable microfiber cloth or newspaper.
Add 20 drops of tea tree oil and three tablespoons of liquid soap to two cups of water and dispense into a spray bottle. Wipe any filmy residue away with a damp cloth. This solution is an ideal disinfectant for eating surfaces and other areas that are prone to harboring bacteria.
Sunlight, borax, peroxide, and lemon are safe, nontoxic alternatives to bleach. Here are a few tricks to try depending on the severity of the stain. They work just as well with surfaces as they do with fabrics (you may want to color-test fabrics first).
- Sunlight is a natural sanitizer and stain remover. Simply hang stained items on a clothesline and let the sun do its work.
- Spray stubborn stains with peroxide, let sit for a few minutes, then rinse with water and hang dry in the sun.
- Douse the stain with lemon juice, let sit for a few moments, and then scrub clean. If you’re working with a clothing stain, wash normally and hang dry in the sun.
- Mix borax with a few tablespoons of water until it forms a thick paste. Rub into the stain and wash as you normally would.
Resources for Further Learning
Want to learn more about indoor air pollution and the hazards posed by chemicals in household cleaners? The following websites provide a wealth of information on these topics and are good sources of emerging scientific research.
American Lung Association. http://www.lung.org/healthy-air/home/resources/cleaning-supplies.html Accessed Apr 20, 2012.
Anderson RC, et al. Toxic effects of air freshener emissions. Arch Environ Health. 1997 Nov-Dec;52(6):433-41.
Anderson RC, et al. Acute toxic effects of fragrance products. Arch Environ Health. 1998 Mar-Apr;53(2):138-46.
Hollender, J et al. Naturally Clean. New Society Publishers. Gabriola Island, BC. 2006.
Howard, B. The Easiest Green Cleaning Recipes You Can Make at Home. http://www.thedailygreen.com/green-homes/latest/green-cleaning-spring-cleaning-460303. Accessed Apr 10, 2012.
Steinemann, AC. Fragranced consumer products and undisclosed ingredients. Science Direct. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.eiar.2008.05.002.
United States Environmental Protection Agency. Greening Your Purchase of Cleaning Products: A Guide for Federal Purchasers. http://www.epa.gov/epp/pubs/cleaning.htm#why. Accessed Apr 10, 2012.
United States Environmental Protection Agency. The Inside Story: A Guide to Indoor Air Quality. http://www.epa.gov/iaq/pubs/insidestory.html. Accessed Apr 22, 2012.
United States Environmental Protection Agency. An Introduction to Indoor Air Quality (IAQ). http://www.epa.gov/iaq/voc.html. Accessed Apr 22, 2012.