Did you know that just seven percent of all cleaning products on the market today adequately disclose their contents? The rest either simply slide by on the lack of regulation on household cleaning agents, or hide behind “proprietary” ingredients.
But with a little knowledge and education, you can shop smarter – and change the marketplace by pressing the cleaning industry to come up with safer formulations and to label ingredients clearly and completely.
“Natural” doesn’t mean non-toxic
Though plant-based ingredients don’t use petrochemicals, some plant-derived substances can cause allergic reactions.
The lack 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.
Consumers have a right to know
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” cleaners makers.
Unfortunately nothing will change unless we tell manufacturers and legislators that we want these products labeled with a complete list of ingredients, including individual chemicals in fragrance and any impurities present.
Publishing ingredient information on the web or requiring consumers to call the company directly is not good enough.
Want to know why?
The Conundrum with Cleaners
When we buy any cleaning product, we expect it to do one thing, clean!
We use a wide array of scents, soaps, detergents, bleaching agents, softeners, scourers, polishes, and specialized cleaners for bathrooms, glass, drains, and ovens to keep our homes sparkling.
But while the chemicals in make our dishes, bathtubs and countertops gleaming and germ-free, many also contribute to indoor air pollution and are poisonous if touched, ingested or inhaled.
In fact, some cleaners are among the most toxic products found in the home. In 2000, cleaning products were responsible for nearly 10% of all toxic exposures reported to U.S.
Poison Control Centers, accounted for more than 206,000 calls. Of these, at least 120,000 exposures involved children under six.
Cleaning ingredients vary in the type of health hazard they pose. Some cause immediate, hazards such as skin or respiratory irritation, watery eyes, and/or chemical burns; while others are associated with chronic, long-term, effects.
The most acutely dangerous cleaning products are corrosive drain cleaners, oven cleaners, and acidic toilet bowl cleaners.
These corrosive chemicals can cause severe burns on eyes, skin and, if ingested, on the throat and esophagus. Ingredients with high acute toxicity include chlorine bleach and ammonia, which produce fumes that are highly irritating to eyes, nose, throat and lungs, and should not be used by people with asthma or lung or heart problems.
These two chemicals pose an added threat in that they can react with each other or other chemicals to form lung-damaging gases. Combining products that contain chlorine and ammonia or ammonia and lye (in some oven cleaners) produces chloramine gases, while chlorine combined with acids (commonly used in toilet bowl cleaners) forms toxic chlorine gas. This is the same gas that was used in trench warfare in World War I!
One of the reasons that this gas is so toxic is that it is highly reactive with water in the mucous membranes of the lungs and eyes.
If one is exposed to chlorine gas, one should seek immediate medical attention. There is no antidote for exposure to this gas, so rapid treatment is paramount.
Fragrances added to many cleaners, most notably laundry detergents and fabric softeners may cause acute effects such as respiratory irritation, headache, sneezing, and watery eyes in sensitive individuals or allergy and asthma sufferers.
The National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health has found that one-third of the substances used in the fragrance industry are toxic. But because the chemical formulas of fragrances are considered “trade secrets,” companies aren’t required to list their ingredients.
They only need to label them as containing “fragrance.”
Other ingredients in cleaners may have low acute toxicity but contribute to long-term health effects, such as cancer or hormone disruption. Some all-purpose cleaners contain the sudsing agents diethanolamine (DEA) and triethanolamine (TEA).
When these substances come into contact with nitrites, often present as undisclosed preservatives or contaminants, they react to form nitrosamines – carcinogens that readily penetrate the skin. 1,4-dioxane, another suspected carcinogen, may be present in cleaners made with ethoxylated alcohols. Butyl cellosolve (also known as ethylene glycol monobutyl ether), which may be neurotoxic (or cause damage to the brain and nervous system), is also present in some cleaners.
Take a look at your favorite bottle of cleaner..
How many of the ingredients above are on the label?
After bubbly cleaning liquids disappear down our drains, they are treated along with sewage and other wastewater at municipal treatment plants, then discharged into nearby waterways. Most ingredients in chemical cleaners break down into harmless substances during treatment or soon afterward.
Others, however, do not. This poses a major threat to our water quality as well as to the health of fish and other wildlife. In a 2002 study of contaminants in stream water samples across the country, the U.S. Geological Survey found persistent detergent metabolites in 69% of streams tested.
Sixty-six percent contained disinfectants.
The detergent metabolites the USGS detected were members of a class of chemicals called alkylphenol ethoxylates (APEs). APEs, which include nonylphenol ethoxylates and octylphenol ethoxylates, are surfactants, or “surface active agents” that are key to detergents’ effectiveness. They are added to some laundry detergents, disinfectants, laundry stain removers, and citrus cleaner/degreasers. When discharged in municipal wastewater, they break down into nonylphenol and octylphenol, which are more toxic and do not readily biodegrade in soil and water. APEs have been shown to mimic the hormone estrogen, and their presence in water may be harming the reproduction and survival of salmon and other fish.
Another major source of water pollution are phosphates, water-softening mineral additives that were once widely used in laundry detergents and other cleaners. When phosphates enter waterways, they act as a fertilizer, spawning overgrowth of algae. This overabundance of aquatic plant life eventually depletes the water’s oxygen supply, killing off fish and other organisms. Although many states have banned phosphates from laundry detergents and some other cleaners, they are still used in automatic dishwasher detergents.
Another environmental concern with cleaning products is that many use chemicals that are petroleum-based. These are heavily contributing to the depletion of this non-renewable resource and increasing our nation’s dependence on imported oil.
A few safe, simple ingredients like soap, water, baking soda, vinegar, lemon juice and borax, aided by a little elbow grease and a coarse sponge for scrubbing, can take care of most household cleaning needs. And they can save you lots of money wasted on unnecessary, specialized cleaners! For that reason, we’ve provided recipes for do-it-yourself cleaners under most product categories (See Product Comparisons).
However, when you need the convenience or the added power of pre-made, commercial cleaners, or for the basics like laundry and dishwashing detergents, here are some shopping guidelines to help you choose products with the lowest impact on your health and the environment:
1. Although most cleaners refuse to list all their ingredients, you can learn something about a product’s hazards simply by reading its label. Most labels bear signal words, such as Danger, Warning or Caution, that provides some indication of a product’s toxicity.
Products labeled Danger or Poison are typically most hazardous; those bearing a Warning label are moderately hazardous, and formulas with a Caution label are considered slightly toxic.
Beside the signal word is usually a phrase that describes the nature of the hazard, such as “may cause skin irritation,” “flammable,” “vapors harmful,” or “may cause burns on contact.”
2. When gauging ecological claims, look for specifics. For example, “biodegradable in 3 to 5 days” holds a lot more meaning than “biodegradable,” as most substances will eventually break down if given enough time and the right ecological conditions. And claims like “no solvents,” “no phosphates,” or “plant-based” are more meaningful than vague terms like “ecologically-friendly” or “natural.”‘
3. When ingredients are listed, choose products made with plant-based, instead of petroleum-based, ingredients.
4. To reduce packaging waste: Choose cleaners in the largest container sizes available; If possible buy in bulk sizes and look for products that contain at least some recycled material. . Also, when it is an option, choose concentrated formulas. When the dilution is water is done at home, not at the factory, concentrated cleaners overall require less packaging and fuels for shipping.
What to look out for:
Avoid cleaners marked “Danger” or “Poison” on the label, and look out for other tell-tale hazard warnings, such as “corrosive” or “may cause burns.”
Avoid products that list active ingredients of chlorine or ammonia, which can cause respiratory and skin irritation and will create toxic fumes if accidentally mixed together.
Avoid purchasing detergents containing phosphates.
Unfortunately, these ingredients are rarely, if ever, disclosed on labels; however, the brands recommended in this report are, to the best of our knowledge, phosphate- and APE-free.
Watch out for unregulated claims on labels! Terms such as “natural” and “eco-friendly” shouldn’t be equated with safety unless they’re backed up with specific ingredient information, such as “solvent-free,” “no petroleum-based ingredients,” “no phosphates,” etc. ”
Additionally, watch out for products labeled organic. The Organic Foods Production Act doesn’t regulate household cleaning products, but some of their ingredients, such as plant oils, can be labeled “certified organic.
Most household cleaning needs can be met safely and inexpensively with a sturdy scrubber sponge and simple ingredients like water, liquid castile soap (such as Dr. Bronner’s, below), vinegar, lemon juice, or baking soda for scrubbing grease and grime.
BATHROOM and TOILET BOWL CLEANERS:
Soap and water, or baking soda for scrubbing soap scum and toilet bowls, work for most bathroom cleaning needs. Scrubbing shower tiles with a toothbrush of baking soda-water paste will help remove mildew and its stains. For tougher toilet jobs, pour one cup of borax and 1/4 cup distilled white vinegar or lemon juice into the bowl. Let sit for a few hours, then scrub with a toilet brush and flush.
Plain water is just as effective as some commercial glass cleaners. Or fill your own spray bottle with water and either 1one-quarter cup white vinegar or 1 tablespoon of lemon juice to help wipe away greasy fingerprints and other harder-to-remove spots.
Prevent drains from becoming blocked in the first place by capturing hair and other drain-clogging particles with inexpensive metal or plastic drain screens, available at home improvement and hardware stores. Regularly collect and dispose of hair that collects around shower or sink drains, and do not allow large food scraps to wash down the kitchen sink.
When clogs occur, use a “snake” plumbing tool to manually remove blockage, or try suction removal with a plunger.
Prevent spills from being baked onto the oven floor by lining it with aluminum foil, and by cleaning them up before they have had time to dry and cook. To remove grease and charred food residues without resorting to caustic chemicals, try soaking oven surfaces overnight in a mixture of water, baking soda, and soap, then scrubbing off with baking soda and a soapy sponge
SCOURING POWDERS and CREAMS:
Baking soda effectively scours away most grime on tubs, showers, toilets, and countertops. For cleaning up grease, cleaning expert Annie Berthold-Bond recommends applying a mixture of 1/2 teaspoon of washing soda, 2 tablespoons of distilled white vinegar, 1/4 teaspoon liquid soap, and 2 cups of hot water with a spray bottle.
Scrubbing silver with toothpaste will remove tarnish.
Un-lacquered brass may be scrubbed clean with a paste of 1 teaspoon salt, 1 cup white vinegar, and 1 cup flour.
To clear out odors, improve ventilation by opening windows and using fans. Baking soda is good at removing odors, and spritzes of lemon or any citrus fruit freshen air. Wooden cedar blocks, pure essential oils, or sachets of natural dried flowers or herbs (such as aromatic roses, lavender, and lemon verbena) provide a gentle fragrance.
Can you think of any other homemade cleaners that do the job as well (or better) than nasty store-bought cleaners?
Let me know in the comments below!