When consumers buy commercial cleaning products, we expect them 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 and sweet-smelling. But while the chemicals in cleaners foam, bleach, and disinfect to make our dishes, bathtubs and countertops gleaming and germ-free, many also contribute to indoor air pollution, are poisonous if ingested, and can be harmful if inhaled or touched. 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, accounting for 206,636 calls. Of these, 120,434 exposures involved children under six, who can swallow or spill cleaners stored or left open inside the home.
Cleaning ingredients vary in the type of health hazard they pose. Some cause acute, or immediate, hazards such as skin or respiratory irritation, watery eyes, or chemical burns, while others are associated with chronic, or long-term, effects such as cancer.
The most acutely dangerous cleaning products are corrosive drain cleaners, oven cleaners, and acidic toilet bowl cleaners, according to Philip Dickey of the Washington Toxics Coalition
After bubbly cleaning liquids disappear down our drains, they are treated along with sewage and other waste water 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, threatening water quality or fish and other wildlife. In a May 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.
What to look for
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!
1. Although most cleaners don't list ingredients, you can learn something about a product's hazards by reading its label. Most labels bear a signal word, 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
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; especially seek out bulk sizes. Select products in bottles made with at least some recycled plastic. By doing so, you support companies that are providing a vital end-market for recycled plastic (without this market, recycling would not be possible). And choose concentrated formulas, which contain only 20% or less water. Because dilution with water is done at home, not at the factory, concentrated cleaners overall require less packaging and fuels for shipping.
Written by Organic Consumers Association