Sometimes “chemicals” or “toxins” seem like things that only exist at Superfund sites or downriver from a polluting factory. But unfortunately toxins don’t only exist “out there,” and there can be countless chemicals hiding right inside our homes. According to the Safe Shopper’s Bible, the average home contains 62 toxic chemicals.
It all adds up… At Cambiati we often focus on clean eating, but everything we come into contact with – air, food, water, cosmetics, even our carpet and clothing – can add to toxic body burden, which is the amount of toxicity stored in the body over time. One easy way to decrease toxic burden is by reducing or eliminating the toxic chemicals you and your family are exposed to in cleaning products.
When we use cleaning products, chemicals can enter our bodies when they touch our skin or we inhale the vapors. Chemicals can even interact with other compounds or air pollutants to create entirely new compounds called VOCs, or volatile organic compounds. Exposure to chemicals found in household cleaning products can cause acute issues like allergic reactions or irritations, but can also contribute to more serious health problems like asthma, endocrine disruption, cancer, reproductive issues or hormonal disruption. (EWG, 2012)
Manufacturers may argue (much in the same vein as proponents of agricultural chemicals) that in small doses, these chemicals pose no concern. But the problem with that argument is that it’s not just one chemical in one small dose, one time. We’re constantly bombarded with chemicals of unknown safety through body care, food/diet, cleaning products, carpet, clothing, etc. There have been no studies on low but near constant exposure – unless you consider the ongoing expansion of “better living through chemistry” an ongoing experiment on human kind in which we are the subjects.
The ability to easily buy products at a grocery store may make products appear as if they have been somehow tested or decided they are safe for consumers – but this is not the case with cleaning products: there are no “federal regulations requiring safety tests or upper limits on toxic ingredients.” (EWG, 2012)
What seems especially troubling is how much we don’t know, how much is missing from this story: the holes in research, the inadequate regulation, the unknown true impact on our health. Much of the research done on many of these substances has been focused on their potential role in causing cancer – with much less energy devoted to evaluating how they might affect the endocrine or nervous system, the brain or other organs.
After investigating over 2,000 cleaning products in the Environmental Working Group’s 2012 report Guide to Healthy Cleaning, the EWG concludes that many products contain substances linked to serious health problems, like asthma, cancer, reproductive and developmental toxicity, allergies and irritation and more.
In their 2012 report, the EWG found that 53% of the products they assessed contain ingredients that are known to harm the lungs, and around 22% contained ingredients known to trigger asthma. Fumes from products can induce asthma in otherwise healthy people, as well as aggravate or trigger the condition in people who already had the condition.
Disturbingly, asthma only continues to be more and more common over recent decades (rates of asthma among children are at an all-time high) and experts believe that environmental factors may play a role in the disorder. It has been estimated that one in seven cases of adult asthma could be attributed to the use of spray products like air fresheners, glass cleaners and furniture sprays.
What you can do:
Make sure to keep areas being cleaned well ventilated, and even better than that – swap out toxic products that can potentially harm your health for clean alternatives at home! (see below for DIY ideas) Bleach and “fragrance” can also affect respiratory health; so can pine and citrus oil cleaners, which contain volatile chemicals called terpenes, which in combination with ozone react to form formaldehyde, an asthmagen and known human carcinogen. (EWG, 2012)
Unfortunately, it’s not as simple as checking labels. Rather than using formaldehyde directly (which kills bacteria and helps to extend a product’s shelf life), companies may add preservatives that release formaldehyde – in which case you would not see it listed on the ingredient label. Unlike food or cosmetics, cleaning products do not even require labeling of ingredients.
What you can do: The EWG identifies Comet, Pine-Sol and Simple Green as containing formaldehyde vapors. But don’t worry if that list contains one of your old standbys – there are great alternatives!
Regular exposure to chemicals found in cleaning products can also affect reproduction and fetal development and studies have seen links between women exposed to high levels of cleaning products during pregnancy have a higher rate of birth defects (as seen in a 2010 NY State Department of Health study on women who held cleaning jobs while pregnant. (EWG, 2012)
An example: Common ingredients in laundry and dish washing soaps: borax and boric acid. They are considered to be toxic to the reproductive system by the EU, as the substances have been shown to cause greater risk of decreased sperm count and libido in men, reduced ovulation and fertility in women, and can cross the placenta and affect fetal development. (EWG, 2012)
Phthalates, which are found in many scented products like air fresheners and soaps, can make their way into the body through inhalation or direct skin contact. The problem with phthalates is that they are known endocrine disruptors – which means they disrupt hormones in the body (eg, reduced sperm counts in men) (source). Phthalates can also trigger migraines and asthma.
Buyer beware: Because manufacturers are not required to disclose ingredients that make up fragrances (because they quality as “trade secrets”), if you see “fragrance” on a label, most likely the product contains phthalates.
What you can do: Opt for fragrance-free or organic products. Avoid aerosol or plug-in air fresheners and try essential oils instead. Or, go the old fashioned route and open the windows! Adding more plants to your home is also a great choice, as they detoxify air naturally.
Another potentially harmful ingredient that can affect respiratory health and trigger allergic reactions (it’s one of the top 5 allergens in the world) is mysteriously called only “fragrance.” By calling it trade secrets, manufacturers don’t have to disclose what exact ingredients are used.
What you can do: Take control of your health. Always check labels and minimize toxicity where you can. Simple, inexpensive and nontoxic replacements can be made at home from a few ingredients like baking soda, vinegar and essential oils.
Here are some DIY ways to minimize your exposure to toxic cleaning products:
- Basic sink cleaner: Mix ½ cup baking soda with 6 drops essential oil. Rinse sink well with hot water, shake the combination into sink and pour ¼ cup vinegar over it. After the bubbles die down scrub with a damp rag, and rinse again with hot water. (source)
- Dusting: Rather than using a product to polish the furniture, grab a microfiber cloth instead.
- To clean the oven: fill an oven-proof dish with water, place it in a hot oven and let the steam soften baked-on grime. Once the oven has cooled down, apply a paste of equal parts: salt, baking soda and vinegar and scrub!
- Minimize exposure to “PERC” (perchloroethylene) a neurotoxin that can cause dizziness and loss of coordination (it’s also responsible for that tell-tale “dry cleaned” smell!) and possible carcinogen that’s found in dry-cleaning solutions, spot removers and carpet cleaners by asking your dry cleaner what method they use and opting for non-toxic dry cleaning options.
- Looking for a nontoxic disinfectant? Mix a few drops of antibacterial, antifungal tea tree oil and a tablespoon of white vinegar in a spray bottle for all-purpose cleaner (can also add a few drops of your favorite essential oil for scent!)
- Clean windows with newspaper and vinegar to avoid “glycol ethers,” which can cause liver and kidney damage, as well as narcosis and pulmonary edema. (source)
- Avoid ammonia – a strong irritant especially problematic for those with asthma and those with respiratory issues. What to use instead for a shiny surface? Vodka! (not that you’ve got any of that lying around..)
- To avoid the highly corrosive chemicals in drain openers: use a mechanical “snake” tool, or try this tip from Green Living Ideas: “pour a cup of baking soda and a cup of vinegar down the drain and plug it for 30 minutes. After the bubbles run down, run hot water down the drain to clear the debris.”
- Chlorine is found in many types of cleaners, from scouring powders to mildew removers, whiteners and more. In addition to being a respiratory irritant, chlorine may also be a serious thyroid disrupter (source). Try Bon Ami or baking soda instead. In addition to cleaning your mirrors with it, you can also clean the toilet bowl with simple vinegar.
- Buyer beware: Like with food products, we can’t rely solely on a good-sounding label to make healthy choices. Watch out for deceiving labels like “natural” or “green” or “biodegradable.” That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s non-toxic or safe for your health.
In 2010 the TerraChoice Group found that 95% of “green” consumer products had committed “green-washing,” or making claims that were truthful but unimportant, for example calling something CFC-free, despite the fact that CFCs are banned by law. Instead of choosing something labeled “biodegradable,” look for more specific information, such as “biodegradable in 3-5 days.” (source)