Allergies, Clean Air, Home Improvement

The Hidden Dangers of Household Cleaners


Before modern household cleaning products hit the market, we would sweep floors with a broom, or wash them with water and a rag. Somewhere along the way, shopping for products with labeling that promised to disinfect and sanitize surfaces became normal. Many of us liked reassurances that these products with their warning labels, precautions and other alarmist labeling promised that we would be safe from microorganisms that could potentially affect our health.

The irony of this is that we were trading one problem for another equally bad problem. While microorganisms can make us sick and there are reasons why we might want to avoid exposure to specific bacteria and viruses, the volatile organic chemicals (VOCs) found in many current cleaners can affect our bodies in other, sometimes worse ways. As we wrote about in an earlier post about the benefits of natural cleaning products, in 2014 there were 198,018 incidents related to cleaning substances; 118,207 of those reported incidents were for children under five years.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), products labeled as sanitizers or disinfectants are required to kill germs as stated on the label, but the EPA review process does not review all the potential health risks for users of these products.

Cleaning products are also not routinely reviewed by the government to identify health risks to the user. Some manufacturers choose to have the EPA evaluate their cleaning products for human health and environmental safety through the Design for the Environment (DfE) Safer Product Labeling Program, but this is voluntary and most products are not reviewed.

In fact, EPA research found that in California workplaces, 11% of people connected their asthma to cleaning and disinfecting products. Additionally, more than half of those in the study claimed to not have respiratory problems before exposure. Those admitted into the study were in no way directly responsible for using or making contact with these products.

Things are worse for infants and children as researchers estimate that 5% of childhood cancer and 30% of childhood asthma cases are related to chemical exposures. A major component of these troubling numbers is the fact that effects of chemical exposure might not show up for years or decades. This makes it especially hard to identify and prevent future exposure at home or work as the damage has already been done.

Are The Cleaning Products in my Home Dangerous?

As noted above, if the cleaning products meant for use by consumers are advertised as a sanitizer or disinfectant, they are required to meet specific registration requirements. Any product that is intended to prevent, destroy, repel or mitigate harmful microorganisms is categorized as a pesticide and must also meet certain labeling requirements.

For detailed information about labeling requirements, the EPA has a resource page on their website for further inquiry about what has to be displayed on labels and what doesn’t.

When looking at the label, one of the first items that might stand out, among other things, are signal words. These words are meant to give consumers an easy way to gauge the risk of exposure to potentially harmful substances.

  • Caution – This product is slightly toxic if eaten, absorbed through the skin, or inhaled; and can cause slight irritation if it makes contact with the eyes or skin.
  • Warning – This product is moderately toxic if eaten, absorbed through the skin or inhaled; and can cause moderate irritation if it makes contact with the eyes or skin.
  • Danger – This product is highly toxic and may be corrosive, resulting in irreversible damage to the skin or eyes; and, if consumed or inhaled, might result in a life-threatening condition.

When walking down the cleaning supply aisle of the local store, we find that “Caution” is the most common signal word. This means the product might not cause immediate harm, but there is still a risk of long-term exposure. According to New York State Department of Health, when VOCs center the body they can remain inside the body and over time cause damage to tissue and organs.

Short-term exposure to high levels of some VOCs can cause headaches, dizziness, light-headedness, drowsiness, nausea, and eye and respiratory irritation. These effects usually go away after the exposure stops. In laboratory animals, long-term exposure to high levels of some VOCs has caused cancer and affected the liver, kidney and nervous system. In general, we recommend minimizing exposure to chemicals, if possible.

The health department also notes that differences in age, health condition, gender and exposure to other chemicals also can affect whether or not a person will have health effects. But understanding the risks, unnecessary exposure should be avoided.

What Cleaning Ingredients Should Be Avoided?

As part of the Toxic Free Kids Act, the Minnesota Department of Health has published a list of “Chemicals of High Concern.” The goal of this list is to identify chemicals that may:

  1. Harm the normal development of a fetus or child
  2. Cause cancer, genetic damage, or reproductive harm
  3. Disrupt the endocrine or hormone system
  4. Damage the nervous system, immune system, or organs, or cause other systemic toxicity
  5. Be persistent, bioaccumulative, and toxic
  6. Be very persistent and very bioaccumulative

The chemicals on their list are found not just in human blood, breast milk, urine, or other bodily tissue or fluid, but also in dust, indoor air, or drinking water, or elsewhere in the home environment as a result of chemicals that might also be found in cleaning products.

Some of the listed ingredients commonly found in cleaning products that meet the above criteria include:

  • Benzene
  • Formaldehyde
  • Tetrafluoroethylene (aerosols)
  • Ammonia
  • Phenols
  • Chlorine
  • Cobalt
  • Hydrochloric Acid
  • Naphtha, Phenols
  • Propylene Glycol

Unfortunately, this is only a small portion of the more than 1700 chemicals on the list of “Chemicals of High Concern.” Of course, not all of the chemicals on the list are found in cleaning products, but it does show the amount of chemicals that we can be exposed to in our daily lives.

What Are Some Alternatives to Synthetic Cleaners?

If you are looking for an alternative to products with potentially harmful ingredients, we did an entire post outlining some products made with natural ingredients. A good way to make the switch is to gather all of the most used cleaning products in your home and list them out. Your list might include one or more of the following:

  • Aerosols / Deodorizers
  • All-purpose cleaners
  • Aerosol spray products, including health, beauty and cleaning products
  • Chlorine bleach
  • Detergent and dishwashing liquid
  • Dry cleaning chemicals
  • Rug and upholstery cleaners
  • Furniture and floor polish
  • Oven cleaners

We have found that natural alternatives to common cleaners work the same as conventional disinfecting and sanitizing products. Although it might be difficult to give up your favorite disinfecting and sanitizing product, it’s worth trying!

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