by Philip Dickey, Ph.D., Staff Scientist, Washington Toxics Coalition
This article was originally published in March 2001
A Breath of Fresh Air or Time for The Respirator?
A clean home contributes to good health provided the cleaning products aren’t loaded with hazardous chemicals.
Walk down the cleaning product aisles of a typical supermarket and you’ll find products that can hurt you. Drain cleaner, oven cleaner, toilet-bowl cleaner, rust remover, spot remover. Many of these products can cause permanent eye damage, skin burns, or if mixed with other products, dangerous chemical reactions. These products can even be fatal if ingested by a child.
If you think it can’t happen to you, think again. Each year, 1.5 million poisonings are reported to poison centers nationwide. Half the incidents involve children under the age of six. Some of the serious injuries could be prevented if people made better choices about what products to have in their home. The environment would be better off as well. Choosing safe cleaning products isn’t as easy as it should be. There’s a bewildering array of products, advertising is often misleading and labels lack ingredient information. Still, the situation isn’t hopeless and you probably can do better than you are now just by learning a few key facts. Let’s examine some common misconceptions.
Myth: If a product says it’s biodegradable, it is. If it doesn’t say so, it isn’t.
Fact: Biodegradable means that the ingredients break down into simpler molecules such as carbon dioxide, salts and water. For cleaning products, this breakdown begins in the sewer system or your septic tank, but it may not be complete before the material is discharged to the environment.
While there are many standards for the speed and completeness of biodegradation, there’s no single standard that governs use of the term on product labels. Most ingredients in household cleaning products are reasonably biodegradable. One exception is a type of detergent called alkylphenol ethoxylates, or APEs. Unfortunately, they’re seldom listed on product labels. Some products containing APEs claim to be biodegradable. Other products don’t contain APEs and are biodegradable, but don’t advertise it. What’s a consumer to do? One safe way is to stick with brands like Country Save, Ecover, and Seventh Generation that we know don’t contain APEs.
Myth: Chlorine bleach breaks down completely into harmless substances once you use it.
Fact: Although most bleach does become salt water pretty quickly after being used, a small part of it reacts with soil on surfaces or in your laundry to form a mixture of chemicals called organochlorines. Some of these, such as chloroform and carbon tetrachloride, can cause cancer. We’re exposed to these chemicals on a daily basis, from the bathroom shower and swimming pool, as well as from bleach. Even if the risk is small, why make it any larger?
Keep bleach use to a minimum. If you use it, avoid inhaling the vapors. Use non-chlorine bleaches when you don’t need the disinfecting properties of bleach. PCC also sells chlorine filters for your shower and Brita filters for your kitchen tap.
Like chlorine bleach, ammonia is a powerful lung irritant. Both are stronger cleaners than you need for most jobs. If you do use either one, mix a small amount with water before using and ventilate the area well. Respect the hazards of these products. Never mix bleach and ammonia together. Don’t assume they’re benign just because they’re so familiar.
Disinfectants and antimicrobials
Myth: You need to use disinfectants and anti-microbial soaps to avoid food-borne bacteria and other pathogens.
Fact: Disinfecting chemicals are becoming more common in products like dishwashing liquids, bathroom cleaners, hand soaps, toys, and even clothing. Many of these anti-microbial products are completely unnecessary.
You can prepare meat or chicken in the home without anti-microbials and still avoid food-borne illnesses. It requires some care, but I’ve done it for years. You need to ensure that knives, cutting boards, your hands, or anything else that has touched raw meat does not come into contact with food that will be eaten uncooked. Use separate knives and cutting boards and keep track of what your hands are doing (always good advice anyway when working with knives!). In the bathroom, focus on thorough cleaning and hand washing rather than trying to disinfect all the surfaces.
Many public-health experts maintain that your best protection against common disease germs is to wash your hands frequently with ordinary soap and hot water. Disinfectants are sometimes useful but they’re not a panacea, and unless used exactly as directed, may not even be effective. Some experts even fear that excessive use of anti-microbials may lead to resistant germs that will be harder to control.
Eradicating mold does require bleach or another disinfectant to kill it, but you only need three teaspoons of bleach per quart of water. Address the cause of the mold rather than merely bleaching it repeatedly. Mold can be caused by poorly ventilated bathrooms, water leaks and underheated rooms, among other things.
Finally, which disinfectant is safest? There isn’t any simple answer to this question. All disinfectants present some hazards, but relying on an ineffective disinfectant is also dangerous. The EPA registers disinfectants as pesticides because they kill living things. The only way to know that a disinfectant will be effective is to use a registered product and follow the label directions exactly. Vinegar is not a disinfectant, though it can be an effective cleaner.
Myth: Many environmentally friendly cleaners are made only from vegetable oils.
Fact: Although some products claim to be free of petroleum, few are completely. The reason is that the most commonly used detergents, even if they contain a vegetable-oil base, are reacted with a petroleum product called ethylene oxide to make them suds. To be sure, you’d need to know the exact chemical name of all the ingredients. If you see the word ethoxylate, the material has been touched by petroleum. Is that bad? Well, it seems a little hypocritical to demand petroleum-free cleaners if you drive to the store to buy them. Still, a barrel saved is a barrel earned, to paraphrase an old saying.
By the way, vegetable-based ingredients are not necessarily more biodegradable than petroleum-based ones. Some are and some aren’t. They’re just made from renewable resources.
Myth: Many household cleaners contain phosphates, chemicals that cause water pollution.
Fact: Phosphates can be a source of algae growth in lakes and rivers. Cleaning products that contain phosphates do contribute to the problem if wastewater treatment discharges into fresh water systems; however, few consumer cleaning products contain phosphates any more.
The exception is dishwasher detergents, most of which do contain phosphates and chlorine bleach as well. PCC carries some brands that don’t contain phosphates. Check the label to be sure. Laundry detergents in Washington state no longer contain phosphates because they were outlawed several years ago.
Philip Dickey, Ph.D., has directed the Washington Toxics Coalition’s Home Safe Home program since 1989. He has done extensive research on household chemicals and writes and speaks widely on the subject. He has persuaded major product manufacturers to improve their formulations. The Washington Toxics Coalition is a non-profit organization that protects public health by preventing pollution. A toxics hotline is available to answer your questions about toxic chemicals and safer alternatives. For membership information, call 206-632-1545 or 800-844-SAFE or visit the website at www.watoxics.org
Recommendations for safe spring cleaning
- Be a skeptical consumer. Don’t pay too much attention to the marketing hype on labels or in advertisements.
- Avoid products labeled “Danger.” If you aren’t comfortable with the hazards described, don’t buy the product.
- Use disinfectants only when necessary and only according to directions. Keep your use of bleach to a minimum.
- Never mix products containing chlorine bleach or ammonia with each other or with other products.
- Baking soda makes a good scouring powder. Vinegar (1/4 cup per quart of warm water) is excellent for cleaning windows.
- Wear gloves when using any cleaning product and open windows to ventilate. Keep the poison center phone number handy just in case (206-526-2121 or 800-732-6985)
- Clean more frequently so the house stays healthier all the time. You won’t have to work so hard when spring next comes around.
- Call, write, or visit our website to get our fact sheet “Safer Cleaning Products” ($2.16).
Only food, drug and personal care products are required to have all ingredients listed on the label. Most cleaning product labels have very little information about what’s inside. Disinfectants, which are considered pesticides, will list only the “active” ingredients, those that kill the microbes.
You can get some idea of the hazards of cleaning products by looking at signal words (Caution, Warning, Danger) and the accompanying descriptive text. This language is required by the federal government and it describes the level and type of hazard. Products with the word “Danger” are extremely hazardous. “Caution” and “Warning” signify moderate to low hazards. If there’s no signal word, the product is not considered hazardous. I recommend avoiding products marked “Danger.”
Don’t pay much attention to advertising claims such as safe, biodegradable, non-toxic and natural. These words on labels are not defined or regulated by the government, although the Federal Trade Commission discourages vague claims and may require companies to back up what they say.