Green and Non-Toxic Cleaning

The Dangers of Cleaning Products

One of the biggest sources of toxic chemicals in our homes are our cleaning supplies.  The bottles are littered with warnings about the danger of ingesting, breathing or touching these products.  Most conventional cleaning products have very few ingredients that are easy to pronounce.  Furthermore, there are no laws that require manufacturers to list the ingredients in cleaning products so anything can be in them and some have been found to be contaminated with neurotoxins and carcinogens.

Very few chemicals in conventional cleaners have been tested for safety, and little research has been done about the effects of mixing different chemicals together.  A recent review of research on the subject of chemicals and cancer found that exposure to household and workplace chemicals is responsible for far more cases of cancer than previously realized (“Environmental & Occupational Causes of Cancer,” University of Massachusetts’ Lowell Center for Sustainable Production, September 2005).

Toxic cleaners can have a more immediate negative consequence if they are ingested and, in fact, more than 80,000 children in the US each year are taken to the emergency room as a result of accidental poisoning.  However, just breathing the fumes from some cleaning products can trigger asthma and lead to irritation around the eyes and nose.  Children are especially vulnerable to the harmful effects of the toxins in traditional cleaners and are more likely to come in contact with these chemicals since they crawl around on the floor and put things in their mouths.

Green Cleaners

Fortunately, green cleaners are an effective and safer alternative to traditional toxic cleaners.  Green cleaners are getting easier to find but you need to choose carefully.  Because manufacturers are not required to list all ingredients, some “green” cleaners may not be as non-toxic as they appear.  And terms like “non-toxic,” “natural” and “eco-friendly” on the labels mean nothing because there are no laws dictating their usage.

You will need to closely read labels, ask for a copy of the MSDS (Materials Safety Data Sheet), and look for key phrases like “plant-based,” “biodegradable in three to five days,” “hypoallergenic,” “no dyes or synthetic fragrances,” “nonflammable,” “concentrated” and “no petroleum products, chlorine, solvents, ammonia, nitrates, borates or phosphates.”

The safest and cheapest way to clean your house is to make your own cleaning products from non-toxic ingredients such as vinegar, baking soda and essential oils.  These safe and natural ingredients do work for everything from countertops to carpets!  Some essential oils are anti-bacterial, antiseptic, anti-fungal and anti-viral.  Here are several ideas to get you started:

Ingredients to Avoid

Conventional household cleaners have a ton of toxic ingredients.  Here are a few:

  • Alkylphenols are used for multi-purpose cleaners and liquid laundry detergent.  They have been linked to disruptions in the endocrine, reproductive and nervous systems.
  • Butyl cellosolve is a solvent used for metal polishes and grease removers that causes irritation around the eye and nose and has been linked to birth defects.
  • Chlorine bleach (sodium hypochlorite) is found in everything from laundry detergent to toilet cleaners and causes respiratory irritation and damage to the skin and eyes.  It has also been linked to reproductive, endocrine and immune-system disorders.  Chlorinated compounds are the number one cause of childhood poisoning.
  • Optical brighteners in laundry products can cause skin allergies.
  • Petroleum distillates are used for waxes, polishes and degreasers and can cause damage to the lungs and nerve cells.
  • Phosphates are water softeners used to enhance surfactants.  They can cause skin irritation as well as nausea, vomiting and diarrhea if ingested.  When they enter our water systems, they can cause an overgrowth of algae.
  • Phthalates can be found in synthetic fragrances and have been linked to a number of health issues, including asthma, abdominal obesity, organ system toxicity, birth defects in male reproductive systems, and disruption of the endocrine system, brain, nervous system and immune system.
  • Polyaromatic hydrocarbons (such as benzene) are used in degreasers, deodorizers, air fresheners, all-purpose cleaners, liquid laundry detergents and pesticides.  These chemicals have been linked to cancer, organ system toxicity, and disruptions in the reproductive and nervous systems.  Benzene is a known carcinogen that has been linked to leukemia.
  • Terpenes can be found in pine, lemon and orange-scented cleaners and fresheners and can cause irritation of the skin and lungs.  They also can react with ozone in the air to form formaldehyde, a known carcinogen.
  • VOCs (volatile organic compounds) are used for solvents in cleaning products and can lead to allergies, asthma, headaches, rashes liver or kidney damage and cancer.