Spring is nearly here again! Time for a traditional spring cleaning. In another post, probably several, we shall discuss detoxing the body but what about cleaning your house. A clean house is a healthy house, right? Well, mostly. Many common household cleaning products contain chemicals that can be linked to asthma, cancer, hormonal disruption, developmental and reproductive disorders and neurological toxicity. And they are sold without the being required to disclose information about safety of ingredients or the products (combined ingredients may produce different chemistry in combination). So the onus of safety rests squarely on the consumer, caveat empator.
Here’s a very partial list of some of the most common offenders.
The chemical: Pthalates. This class of chemicals are used to maintain the fragrance in scented products, and also added to plastics to keep them flexible and resilient. They are found in vinyl (floors, pipes and furniture), plastic packaging, toys, shower curtains, detergents, dish soap, personal hygiene products (soap, shampoo, deodorant, nail polish, and hair spray) and even toilet paper
The problem: Pthalates are an endocrine disruptor and interfere with cell replication and thus cause developmental and reproductive problems. Pthalates exposure is mostly inhalation, but are well absorbed through the skin. When stuff is absorbed through the skin (transdermal), it bypasses most of the body’s natural mechanisms (that sequester toxins safely for processing) and get stored right in the organs.
The solution: It is now quite easy to find unscented versions of most products. A few plants and an essential oil diffuser (or opening the window) are great ways to freshen up a room.
The chemical: Triclosan. An antibacterial agent found in dish and hand soaps labeled ‘antibacterial’, cosmetics, toothpastes and deodorant. It is often infused in toys and kitchen ware. Triclosan and other antibacterial agents have to be disclosed on a label.
The problem: Triclosan is linked to endocrine and immune dysfunction, however, the bigger concern with antibacterial soaps is that they are overusing our bacterial defenses and creating bacteria that are resistant to both household antibacterials and medical antibiotics.
The solution: Simple soaps and detergents (with short ingredient lists) are effective in most situations, especially in the home.
The chemical: Ammonia. A powerful irritant that is common in glass cleaners and polishes.
The problem: Ammonia is a naturally occurring substance that evaporates easily, which leaves a nice sparkle, but also makes for instant lung irritation. Mixing ammonia and bleach will create a poison gas, so be careful.
The solution: Cheap vodka will lend the same sparkle without the pain, and toothpaste makes an excellent metal polish.
The chemical: Chlorine. The main component of bleach, chlorine is a common addition to toilet bowl cleaners, laundry whiteners, scouring powders and mildew removers. Oh, yeah, and tap water!
The problem: Exposure is ubiquitous, we get exposed by using the cleaners, through inhalation and transdermally, but also through drinking and bathing in unfiltered municipal water. Like ammonia, acute exposure to concentrated chlorine is irritating to the lungs and skin, chronic can lead to asthma and bronchitis. Unlike ammonia, chlorine is a halide like iodine, and thus causes some pretty serious disruption of thyroid function.
The solution: Bon Ami, baking soda, vinegar and borax powder work well for most uses. Chlorine-free oxygen based powders are readily available on the market. Simple filters on drinking water and in the shower will reduce exposure through tap water.
The chemical: Sodium hydroxide. Lye used to be one of the main ingredient in what our ancestors used to call soap, back when it could cause burns to eyes (and other mucus membranes). The corrosive chemical called sodium hydroxide is the active part of lye and these days we mostly use it for oven cleaners and drain openers.
The problem: Breathing too much Easy-Off or Drain-o fumes can give a sore throat that lasts for days. long term or multiple exposures can lead to asthma and other breathing problems.
The solution: Baking soda and elbow grease will clean any oven, and enzyme based drain openers and mechanical drain snakes work well for any clog.
The chemical: Quarternary ammonium compounds (QUATS). Fabric softeners, liquid and sheets, along with household cleaners with an ‘antibacterial’ function on the label use QUATS. QUATS are more widely used in industrial (kitchens and hospitals) settings.
The problem: As another antibacterial substance, QUATS have the same effect triclosan does by way of creating resistant microbe strains. They are potent skin irritants and there is good evidence that they contribute to asthma. Dryer sheets also infuse everything with micro particles of fiberglass, not toxic but inhalation of fiberglass is bad in the long run.
The solution: Instead of using fabric softeners, add a bit of white vinegar to your rinse cycle will remove soap residue and prevent static cling (along with dryer balls). A mix of white vinegar, a few drops of tea-tree oil and water in a spray bottle makes for a fine, inexpensive, QUAT like cleaner.
The chemical: 2-butoxyethanol. A sweet smelling solvent that is a cousin of anti freeze, a glycol esther. Found in many window, kitchen and multipurpose cleaners, 2-butoxyethanol is not legally required to be listed on the consumer label, even if the EPA requires safety precautions in industrial use.
The problem: According to the MSDS (safety info sheet) for glycol esthers, inhalation causes sore throat acutely, and contribute to pulmonary edema, liver and kidney damage over time. Using one of these cleaners in a confined space like a bathroom can result in exposure exceeding workplace safety standards.
The solution: Ventilation is always important, even with non toxic products. Vinegar and newsprint for windows and mirrors and simple cleaners line Bon Ami for all purpose cleaning.
No one can avoid exposure to toxic chemicals altogether, but it is possible to reduce it significantly. Some of the worst toxic offenders commonly found in household cleaning products, and we have many ways mitigate risk and to swap them for healthier, safer options.