We are a society obsessed with clean. We are terrified of germs, obsessed with clean hands and wary of environments that appear unclean. And for good reason. Every day we hear of new food-born illnesses and disease outbreaks and waves of public communicable diseases. We are convinced that anti-bacterial gel will keep us safe and our children free of sickness and we ritually engage in a scorch and burn approach to cleaning our homes.
It is so obvious as to not require footnotes. Just take a look at the labels in your shelves. On many of your household cleaning supplies you will find labels that read: WARNING, CAUTION and POISON. Or perhaps you will find one of these:
We have become so acclimated to seeing these symbols that they have lost their meaning. Ask yourself, especially if you have children, why you would have any products in your home that display these symbols?
Ok, so I’ll get off of my soap box. At a minimum please ensure that cleaners that are obviously dangerous are kept in a secure place away from children. And also please keep their use to a minimum, as I’ll discuss further in Part II.
The danger that cleaners that are poisonous can be immediate and acute like immediate respiratory difficulty, skin irritation and watery eyes. Direct exposure to the skin can cause irritation or burns. But there are potential long-term effects of exposure to these chemicals, mainly cancer. Some cleaners may be required to inform consumers that their contents contain carcinogens.
Companies who produce these cleaners are not required to tell you their exact ingredients. There are no labeling requirements for this.
But we know the most dangerous products are those that are corrosive, such as drain cleaners, oven cleaners and toilet bowl cleaners. These may include bleach or ammonia and are acutely toxic if not handled properly. Other cleaners, such as all-purpose cleaners and bathroom cleaners may contain lathering agents diethanolamine (DEA) and triethanolamine (TEA), which I highlighted in my chapter on Personal Care, to create the sudsy effects consumers desire to enhance the visual confirmation that the cleaning agent is working. These chemicals are highly reactive and combine with other chemicals to create carcinogens.
In addition, it is likely your typical household cleaner will contain synthetic fragrances and perfumes to create the aromas we have come to expect. That “fresh” lavender small isn’t lavender at all. Recall that thousands of potential chemicals can be present in what a proprietary fragrance is made of.
But acute allergic reactions can be just as harmful to your family’s health. Of the chemicals used in houehold cleaners today, the following cause the most allergic reactions:
- Triclosan – recall our discussion that triclosans aren’t actually better at killing germs than regular soaps. But triclosans have been marketed very well. Unfortunately they are commonly responsible for hay fever reactions and skin rashes.
- Ammonia – a naturally occurring substance, ammonia is fine in very small doses. However, the concentration used for cleaning is toxic. Exposure can cause respiratory constriction, eye irritation and headaches.
- Hydrochloric acid – what, acid? This is also natural, but found in nature in diluted forms. It is used in toilet bowl cleaners and bathroom cleaners. Direct inhalation is extremely dangerous and can lead to severe respiratory impediment and even coughing up blood. It can burn and blister the skin.
- Formaldehyde – although a known human carcinogen this chemical is still found in cleaners and personal care products. Exposure to even small amounts can cause asthma, headaches, skin irritation and vomiting.
- BPA – Bisphenol A is an endocrine disruptor and is found in the plastics of household cleaning products. BPA is also linked to asthma and potentially to the display of food allergies.
Neurotoxins, endocrine disruptors, irritants and carcinogens are common in these household cleaners. The categories and many of the chemicals are the same as what are found in personal care items.
But it’s not just our human health we need to be concerned with. The environment also suffers from the chemicals we use to clean our homes. When a chemical rinses down the sink or down the toilet, it ends up in our municipal water system and then out into the environment itself. Although our municipal sewage systems treat the water that come through the pipes, that water is released into our water system. Although many chemicals that are harmful coming out of the bottle do in fact dilute, breakdown or dissolve through water treatment, there are still toxic chemicals that do not.
The US Geological Survey found that 65% of our waterways contain detergents – recall all detergents are petroleum byproducts. Those that don’t break down in the water treatment process are surfacants – chemicals that are key to the detergent’s effectiveness. These are a class of chemicals known as alkylphenol ethoxylates and are added to laundry cleaners, stain removers and even your favorite citrus spray cleaner. These chemicals are endocrine disruptors – specifically estrogen enhancers. When they are present in waterways it is believed they interfere with fish reproduction.
Another example are phosphates which survive the water treatment process or run off directly into our waterways. Phosphates promote the growth of oxygen depleting plant life in waterways. These plants create toxic environments in waterways and kill all other life. Although many municipalities have banned phosphates, they are still present in many dishwashing machine detergents.
Making informed decisions about the cleaners you use and store in your home is important to your overall health. Exposure to harmful chemicals through household cleaners contributes to your overall Chemical Body Burden.
But perhaps more directly, the exposure to household cleaners accounts for over 10% of all poison exposures reported to the US Poison Control Centers and half of these exposures were to children under six. As you will read in Part II, this is especially infuriating considering we may not need all of these toxic chemicals in our homes to begin with.
The ways in which we are exposed to synthetic and toxic chemicals in our homes can be overwhelming. There is formaldehyde in the particle board underneath our floors and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in the paint we put on the walls. Your upholstered furniture has flame retardants linked to cancer. Fortunately the government is now acting to do something about this and in many states you will not have to buy new furniture with these chemicals.
If your home is new, there are numerous products installed in your home that can take months or years to off-gas completely. I won’t go into all of them.
But I thought I would highlight one piece of furniture that you can change which can make a positive impact on your health. Your mattress.
Unfortunately, the cheaper the mattress, the more chemicals it will contain. Flame retardants, petroleum-based fibers containing arsenic, boric acid and formaldehyde. That is an unfortunate economic reality. So for many, making an investment in a chemical free mattress isn’t an option. But if you can afford to find a mattress made with latex, eco-foam or other nontoxic, chemical free and hypoallergenic mattress, it may help your health in the long run. Best of all would be a mattress made with natural fibers such as cotton and you can even find organic mattresses too!