Are Cleaning Products Making Your Family Ill?


Dangers in your home are more widespread than you think. With the growth of strong and potentially harmful household chemicals in the past decades, the potential for illness or worse has greatly increased.

The chemical industry has expanded hugely since World War II and, with consumers always hungry for new products, innumerable strong chemicals have entered our homes and daily routines during the last 50 years.

Unfortunately homemakers don’t always realize that products might be hazardous. We may be a little too relaxed about following manufacturer’s instructions. When is the last time you opened windows and doors before using a chlorine-containing cleaner? And doesn’t opening windows and doors conflict with your need to save energy costs? Surely we shouldn’t be letting cooled or heated air escape. In fact, new home construction has for decades been trying to seal up homes, preventing fresh-air circulation.

When you finish using a strong cleaning product, do you remember to clean the container mouth and seal it back to as air-tight a condition as possible? Maybe not always. Have you ever sat back and tried to count every chemical product stored somewhere in your house? What about those products at the back of the top shelves? You know, the ones that have been sitting there for a few years.

Well, what emerges here is the modern equation for indoor air pollution: More hazardous chemicals in the home, plus less ventilation, equals more acute and chronic family exposure to chemicals.

Are Your Cleaning Products Hazardous to Your Family?

Some hardworking homemakers have been caught dramatically unawares exposing young and vulnerable family members to enough household chemicals to make them sick. This was the case of new mother Amilya Antonetti and her baby David, whose story was told in the June 12, 2000, edition of People Magazine. Antonetti discovered that her newborn son became so ill on the days she cleaned the home that he had to be taken to the emergency room. David turned out to be sensitive to the powerful cleaning chemicals used by Antonetti, especially ammonia. Antonetti replaced those cleaning products with non-toxic alternatives, and went on to develop her own line of safer products called Soapworks.

So, what exactly are the chemical culprits present in homes today? The average American home contains 63 regularly purchased hazardous chemical products. (The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) defines hazardous chemicals as flammable, toxic, corrosive, or reactive.) These chemicals fall into four main groups: cleaners and polishes, paints and solvents, auto products, and pesticides. By volume, these chemicals may total three to 10 gallons per household.

Examples of Hazardous Chemicals

Here are examples of familiar commercial cleaning products and the hazardous chemicals they may contain. Some of these are called volatile organic chemicals (VOCs). They evaporate quickly into air and are easily inhaled.

  • Air Fresheners. These may contain formaldehyde, a suspected human carcinogen that also causes nausea, headaches, and shortness of breath. Formaldehyde, used in both spray and wick deodorizers, is also a respiratory irritant. (Irritant chemicals cause inflammation of the skin, eyes, mucus membranes, and respiratory system.)
  • Bleach. Household bleach contains sodium hypochlorite, which can burn or irritate eyes, skin or the lungs.
  • Disinfectants. These often contain sodium hypochlorite, ammonia, or phenols. Ammonia can burn skin and irritate lungs; phenols are flammable and toxic to the respiratory and circulatory system. (Toxic chemicals cause injury or death upon ingestion, absorption, or inhalation.)
  • Drain Cleaners. These may contain sodium or potassium hydroxide, also known as lye, which burns skin and eyes and may irritate the lungs.

  • Oven Cleaners. These also contain sodium or potassium hydroxide.
  • Toilet Bowl Cleaners. These may contain hydrochloric acid or oxalic acid, which are corrosive and cause burns. These cleaners may also contain toxic chlorinated phenols.
  • Window Cleaners. These may contain ammonia, or diethylene glycol, which is a central nervous system depressant.

  • Carpet and Upholstery Shampoo. These may contain perchlorethylene, a known carcinogen that can damage the liver, kidney, and nervous system.

  • Furniture Polish. Many of these contain petroleum distillates, which can irritate the lungs and skin.

  • Painting Products. Oil- and enamel-based paints, paint strippers, and paint thinners contain volatile organic chemicals such as toluene, benzene, and methylene chloride. Short-term exposure can cause skin and respiratory irritation, nausea, or dizziness. Long-term exposure can permanently damage organs. Methylene chloride, a known animal carcinogen (and probable human carcinogen) makes up 60 to 80 percent of a typical organic chemical-based paint stripper.

What’s on the Product Label?

The government tries to protect consumers by regulating commercial product ingredients to some degree. Three different agencies work to regulate household chemical products. The EPA regulates pesticides, disinfectants, chlorine bleach and mildew removers. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates food, drugs and medicine, personal care products, and cosmetics. The Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) regulates the bulk of cleaners, non-chlorine bleach, and wood finishes.

Product label regulations vary by agency. Often the label states the nature and the level of the hazard. For example, the EPA uses three levels: caution, warning, and danger, to indicate the relative toxicity of a product. Caution means harmful if swallowed; an ounce to more than a pint taken by mouth will kill an average-sized adult. Warning means harmful if swallowed; a teaspoonful to an ounce taken by mouth could kill an average-sized adult. Danger means harmful or fatal if swallowed; a taste to a teaspoonful taken by mouth could kill an average-sized adult.

Importantly, the Federal Hazardous Substances Act (FHSA) requires hazard warnings on all household products that contain 10 percent or more of petroleum distillates (examples include mineral spirits, naptha, and kerosene) and certain other hydrocarbons: benzene, toluene, xylene, and terpenes. (Petroleum distillates are the primary ingredient in some furniture polishes, paint solvents, and adhesives. Terpenes are in products such as turpentine, pine oil, and limonene. Pine oil and limonene are found in some cleaning products and disinfectants.)

But products with less than 10 percent of these chemicals, some of which—such as benzene—are carcinogens, do not require the warning.

Another problem with labels is that they may list as “inert” some ingredients that may be even more toxic than the so-called active ingredient of the product. These inert ingredients are not identified and their potential to cause chronic health effects is not disclosed. Labels also fail to identify ingredients that may escape as volatile organic compounds to irritate our respiratory system, help produce smog, damage the ozone layer, or accumulate in the environment.

Label shortcomings have prompted local efforts to provide consumers with greater protection. In 1986 the state of California passed Proposition 65, an informal name for the Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act. The act requires manufacturers to warn consumers if a product exposes them to chemicals, above a specified level, that can cause cancer or harm reproduction.

The point of labeling laws is not only to increase awareness of toxic ingredients, but also to inspire manufacturers to replace them with safer ingredients. After Proposition 65, The Gillette Company removed the toxin trichloroethylene from its Liquid Paper Typewriter Correction Fluid, and Dow Chemical removed the carcinogen perchloroethylene from its K2r spot-lifter.

In 1992, Ohio consumer activists tried to pass a similar labeling law known as Issue 5, spending about $150,000 to promote the measure. But opponents, mostly large corporations, contributed nearly $5 million to defeat it, arguing through television advertisements that the law would lead to higher taxes and serious damage to the state economy.

Back in California, a coalition of environmental and labor groups filed a lawsuit in 1997 against the governor and the state Environmental Protection Agency for violating Proposition 65 regulations. The suit claimed the California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment failed to warn residents about potential exposure to 66 reproductive and developmental toxins identified by the US EPA in the federal Toxics Release Inventory. (The state EPA responded that it needed to do further review before listing the toxins, because the US EPA did not list all of the chemicals as “known” to cause reproductive harm, but listed some of them as “reasonably anticipated” to cause reproductive harm.)

These skirmishes reveal that considerable responsibility for preventing your family’s exposure to hazardous household products rests ultimately on your own shoulders. And that is why you want to be an educated consumer with an enquiring mind!

Consumers can learn about any household chemical product by asking the manufacturer for a copy of the material safety data sheet (MSDS). This sheet lists complete information about the product, including all safety precautions. How do you contact the manufacturer? Check product labels for manufacturer’s telephone numbers. Also look up manufacturers on the Internet and check for the MSDS.

Why Kids Are Especially at Risk

There is another thing that parents need to know: All children have special vulnerabilities to toxic substances. First, kids’ unique behaviors place them at risk. For example, they like to play on the floor amidst the possibly contaminated spills and dust created by a busy family. Also, very young kids explore their environment by hand-to-mouth activity, and in the process may put things in their mouths that we adults would not.

Children are especially vulnerable to polluted indoor air. Because they have higher metabolic rates, children require more oxygen and breathe in two to three times as much air relative to their body size than adults. Children’s systems are still developing as they move through stages of rapid growth and development, from infancy through adolescence. Exposure to toxic substances can affect fetal, infant, and childhood growth, especially development of the nervous system.

Antibacterial Products: Overkill?

Another problem in cleaning products has emerged in the last decade. This is the introduction of grocery shelf products such as liquid hand soap that contain “antibacterial” agents. These products may not only be a form of cleaning overkill, but their widespread use is making bacteria resistant to them. Like antibiotics, antibacterial agents kill susceptible bacteria while allowing the growth of resistant bacteria that may be present in small numbers at the start. The resistant bacteria can then take over and become dominant in the bug population, a most undesirable situation. Because of this threat, the use of antibiotics and antibacterial agents should be reserved for situations where they are absolutely necessary on a medical basis.

Also, the genes that make bacteria resistant to antibacterial agents are sometimes carried on the same rings of DNA, called plasmids, that carry genes making the bugs resistant to antibiotics like penicillin. By promoting the growth of resistant bacteria that carry these plasmids, antibacterial cleaners may actually foster double resistance to antibacterial agents as well as antibiotics.

Incidentally, researchers from Colorado State University found that antibacterials can promote antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria in yet another way. They found that bacteria exposed to the antibacterial triclosan have an increased production of efflux pumps. These pumps actively eject antibiotics from a bacterial cell before the antibiotics can kill the cell. This is one of the main mechanisms responsible for antibiotic resistance in bacteria, and thus triclosan may be contributing to this growing problem.

This misguided zealousness to rid bacteria from our lives is resulting in a seemingly endless string of products containing antibacterial agents, including soaps, hand lotions, children’s toys and highchairs, cutting boards, and pillow and mattress covers.

The irony in the story of antibacterial agent products is that they are unnecessary under ordinary circumstances. For example, regular soap by itself works against bacteria. It loosens bacteria from surfaces so they can be rinsed away. As reported in US News and World Report (May 10, 1999), the simplest and cheapest way to banish bugs is with at least 15 seconds of thorough hand washing with soap, which usually removes 99 percent of bacteria off the skin. And manufacturers have not produced evidence that healthy individuals who use antibacterial products get sick less often.

Five Ways to Reduce Your Family’s Exposure

  1. Don’t use potentially hazardous chemicalsunless absolutely necessary. (If you already have a product in the house, it can be better for the environment to use it up for its intended purpose rather than disposing of it in the trash. Use with extreme care, and don’t buy any more.)
  2. Don’t overuse “antibacterial” cleaning products.
    • Use regular soap to wash your hands, and wash your hands often and vigorously, rinsing well.
    • Use regular dishwasher liquid for washing kitchenware.
    • If you need to disinfect a kitchen counter or floor, use a commercial bleach with appropriate ventilation and precautions, or use a nontoxic alternative (see products and recipes below).
    • Don’t buy household products such as cutting boards or high chairs that are advertised as containing antibacterial agents. There is no evidence that they decrease the incidence of infection.
    • Save the use of an antibacterial product for a situation serious enough to warrant its use. An example would be the arrival home of a vulnerable patient following a hospital stay for surgery or illness.
  3. When a powerful cleaning product with hazardous chemicals must be used, follow these steps:
    • Read the product label and follow the manufacturer’s directions for use carefully.
    • Keep the product in its original package for continued access to safety information and directions.
    • Use the product only for its intended use.
    • Always use the product in a well-ventilated area. Don’t be afraid to lose some cooled or heated air in the process. Maintain venting systems that send indoor air outside.
    • Reseal the container to as air-tight a state as possible before storing. Store chemicals outside the home if possible, or in a well-ventilated area.
    • Products with volatile organic compounds, such as strippers and spot removers, should be handled with special caution. Use the product outdoors or schedule use for mild weather when open windows and doors will not be a problem. Take regular breaks for fresh air while working. Use protective gloves and glasses. Keep children and pets away from the work area. Purchase only the needed amount to do the job so there is less left over to store.
    • Limit the use of aerosols. These products become a serious inhalation hazard because their contents are dispersed in the air as tiny droplets. Use pump sprays instead.
  4. Consider buying commercial nontoxic or natural cleaning products available at your local stores, or from the following internet websites:
    • NEEDS (Nutritional Ecological and Environmental Delivery System): This website is a hub for health information and sells natural cleaning products from scores of manufacturers such as Allen’s Naturally, Earthrite, and Safechoice.
    • Seventh Generation: This website sells a variety of nontoxic cleaning products.
    • Livos Environmental Safe Cleaners: Over 1200 natural products including paints, stains, thinners, natural cleaners and polishes can be ordered from this website.
    • Sinan Company: The website has natural wood finishes, paints and cleaning products.
    • Soapworks: Amilya Antonetti’s all-natural cleaning products, featuring organic ingredients such as coconut oil and white ginger.
  5. Make your own nontoxic cleaners out of easy-to-find and inexpensive ingredients. More recipes for nontoxic cleaning products can be found in magazines and books. The seven most frequently used ingredients are available at your grocery store. These are baking soda (sodium bicarbonate), borax, soap [flakes, liquid, and oil soap], washing soda [sodium carbonate], white vinegar, salt, and lemon juice.

Some Easy Do-It-Yourself Recipes

Here are sample recipes.

  1. For freshening the air: To remove food odors quickly, boil one cup water plus one teaspoon vinegar for a few minutes. Add fragrance to the air by boiling sweet herbs and spices in water. To fight odors in diaper pails and trash compactors, sprinkle in baking soda.
  2. Recipes to disinfect: Regular cleaning with soap and water, and rinsing with hot water. Or try a wash solution of one half cup of borax in a gallon of water.
  3. A recipe to bleach: Add white vinegar, baking soda, or borax to the wash. Add moderate amounts, pretesting vulnerable fabric and adjusting amounts for desired effect.
  4. A recipe to clean drains: Pour one half cup of baking soda and one cup vinegar down the drain, plugging the drain immediately until the foaming stops. Then rinse with hot water.
  5. A recipe to clean ovens: Scrub with a paste of baking soda, soap and water. Also, add borax and salt to the paste [salt is very abrasive].
  6. A recipe to clean toilet bowls: Pour one cup vinegar and one half cup baking soda in the bowl, and scrub. Or wet the bowl and sprinkle well with borax, let sit a few hours and then scrub and rinse.
  7. Recipes for furniture polish: Mix one part lemon juice with two parts olive oil or vegetable oil. Or use beeswax, or mix beeswax with olive oil.
  8. Recipes to clean carpet: Natural cleaning expert Annie Berthold-Bond recommends using a raw potato! Or try an all-purpose cleaner such as one tablespoon liquid soap or borax in one quart warm water. You can add a dash of lemon juice or vinegar. Another recipe mixes three tablespoons washing soda in one quart of warm water. Remember to test the solutions on a hidden area of any fabric or carpet to make sure no damage is done.
  9. Recipes to clean windows: Mix a solution of water and vinegar. Recommended proportions vary from three tablespoons vinegar in one quart water, to three tablespoons vinegar in two cups water, to a 1:1 mixture. Some recipes add a drop of detergent.

A Special Note on the Virtues of Vinegar

As the above recipes reveal, vinegar has many uses in cleaning. Its mild acid nature works well in removing mineral deposits. For example, vinegar will wipe away white rings on terra cotta pots. It will remove deposits in clogged shower heads. You can soak the head in a bowl of vinegar, or tie a sandwich bag full of vinegar on the head overnight. Mineral deposits in sink and toilet bowls disappear after this treatment: Wet a strip of toilet tissue in vinegar and lay over the deposits for 15 minutes to an hour.

Important Precautions:

  • Be careful to store your products in well labeled containers, and never store your cleaners in empty food or drink containers lest they be mistaken as edible or potable.
  • Keep the products stored well away from children.
  • Do not assume from the natural cleaning recipes that just any cleaning agent can be mixed together. Mixing together strong commercial products like ammonia and bleach can release poisonous gases. Specifically, never mix ammonia with chlorine bleach, toilet bowl cleaners, rust removers, or oven cleaners. And never mix household bleach containing sodium hypochlorite with acidic products like vinegar, toilet bowl cleaners, or liquid dishwasher detergent.

Top Ten Tips for Safer House Cleaning

  1. Ventilate, ventilate, ventilate your work area when using strong cleaning products.
  2. Keep kids away from the work area and from contact with cleaning products.
  3. Read the manufacturer’s label for warnings and directions before using products.
  4. Don’t ever mix ammonia and bleach, nor any other strong cleaners together.
  5. Remember that the labels of strong commercial products may not list all hazardous chemical ingredients.
  6. Call the manufacturer for a Material Safety Data Sheet to find information about product ingredients and safety issues.
  7. Reseal opened chemical products tightly.
  8. Remember that soap and water usually do the job, and antibacterial products are not usually necessary in the home.
  9. Vinegar has many gentle but effective cleaning properties.
  10. Save money by making your own cleaning products.

For More Information

  • US Environmental Protection Agency(EPA): This site links to EPA’s activities, regulations, and publications such as “The Inside Story: A Guide to Indoor Air Quality,” a 47-page EPA online publication covering home air quality issues for the general public.
  • EPA Office of Children’s Health Protection (OCHP): A website devoted to health and environmental issues as they impact children.
  • EPA Office of Pollution Prevention and Toxics (OPPT): This website offers online fact sheets on a variety of chemicals that are found in household cleaning products.
  • Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR): Links to interesting online articles on environmental health issues as well as to summaries about hazardous chemicals called “ToxFAQs.”
  • Environmental Hazards Management Institute (EHMI): A nonprofit environmental education organization that sells the inexpensive and handy-to-use: “Household Product Management Wheel”, tips on 36 commonly used household chemicals; and the “Kidswheel on Common Household Products,” a fun-to-use slide chart for kids about hazardous household products emphasizing the importance of reading product labels.


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