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8 Household Cleaning Agents to Avoid
A surprising number of the most harmful toxins ever created are found right in our own backyard — indeed, right inside your mop closet. Here are ways you can detoxify your home, make it safe again, and keep it that way by avoiding a few key chemical cleaning products.
The air in our homes is filled with fumes from petrochemical solvents added to cleaners to dissolve dirt. The average household contains anywhere from three to 25 gallons of toxic materials, most of which are in cleaners. No law requires manufacturers of cleaning products to list ingredients on their labels or to test their products for safety. It’s up to you to make sure your home is not only clean, but also nontoxic.
Unfortunately, it isn’t easy to identify which products contain these hazardous ingredients. While cleaners are the only household products regulated by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission under the Federal Hazardous Substances Labeling Act, their sellers aren’t required to reveal these products’ ingredients. These ingredients are considered “trade secrets,” so government regulations are actually designed to protect this proprietary information, not to protect human health or the environment.
When it comes to cleaners, the consumer has little to go on beyond the warning labels that manufacturers are required to put on their products. The labels DANGER, WARNING and POISON give only a very general idea about the seriousness of the unknown substances a product contains. In fact, a New York Poison Control Center study found that 85 percent of product warning labels are inadequate.
These warnings apply only to a product’s immediate health effects; they don’t illuminate what happens when we use them over a long period of time. If you’re using common household cleaning products, you’re likely to encounter the following chemicals (among many others), and the following effects, while cleaning:
- Chlorinated phenols found in toilet bowl cleaners are toxic to respiratory and circulatory systems.
- Diethylene glycol found in window cleaners depresses the nervous system.
- Phenols found in disinfectants are toxic to respiratory and circulatory systems.
- Nonylphenol ethoxylate, a common surfactant (detergent) found in laundry detergents and all-purpose cleaners, is banned in Europe; it has been shown to biodegradeslowly into even more toxic compounds.
- Formaldehyde found in spray and wick deodorizers is a respiratory irritant and suspected carcinogen.
- Petroleum solvents in floor cleaners damage mucous membranes.
- Perchloroethylene, a spot remover, causes liver and kidney damage.
- Butyl cellosolve, common in all-purpose, window and other types of cleaners, damages bone marrow, the nervous system, kidneys and the liver. The list could fill a book. And it’s a book that would include thousands of other chemicals — some so dangerous that they’re found on lists of chemicals associated with Superfund toxic waste sites and in the toxins section of the U.S. Clean Air and Water Acts.
To detoxify your mop closet, first rid it of cleaners that are toxic or that you suspect may be toxic.You can be sure of this if the label says WARNING, DANGER or POISON.
If you’re like most people, you’ve probably got more than a few rusty, crusty, almost-empty bottles of cleaning products, along with some dried-out sponges and a furniture-polish-soaked T-shirt hanging around in your mop closet. With a little organization and attention to labels, you can transform it into a complete and efficient collection of green cleaners and other products that will not only help keep your house spic-and-span, but also help reduce dangerous indoor air pollution created by most conventional household cleaners.
The manufacturer that gives you the most information about its product is usually the manufacturer you can trust.
Start by pulling everything out and making three piles: one for the things you use every week (laundry detergent, toilet paper, trash bags, paper towels), the second for things you use every once in a while (window cleaner, hardwood floor cleaner, stain and odor removers), and the third for things you can’t remember using and things that look caked on, rusted over or petrified beyond recognition.
Take a close look at the labels on the products in piles 1 and 2. Anything that you know to be toxic,move to pile 3. The items in pile 1 go back into the closet. Store products you only use now and then (pile 2) on an out-of-the-way shelf in the closet. And items in pile 3 get banished from the house forever — but do not dispose of them down the drain or in the garbage; your local department of public works can tell you how to safely dispose of these hazardous household wastes. After this exercise, you might find that you need to do some restocking to meet your cleaning needs with safe and natural products.
When you buy new cleaning products, look for those that list their ingredients on the label, and make sure those ingredients include no petroleum-based surfactants, chlorine or phosphates. Also look for the words “nontoxic” and “biodegradable.” A host of products now available in naturalfood stores and in many supermarkets are designed to clean as effectively as their petrochemical counterparts, but won’t pollute your home or the earth in the process.
If you use sponges to clean any part of your home, make sure they’re pure cellulose sponges that are not treated with a synthetic disinfectant. Most sponges sold in U.S. supermarkets these days are impregnated with triclosan or other synthetic disinfectants. Packaging that claims “kills odors” or “resists odors” makes these sponges easy to distinguish. In reality, a disinfectant-laden sponge is ineffective at sterilizing countertops or other surfaces; the disinfectant simply gives you a “germ-free” sponge. This, in and of itself, is not a bad thing.
Sponges by nature are perfect breeding grounds for germs, since they are a moist, warm habitat and come into close and frequent contact with bacteria when wiping up spills, meat juices, etc. However, the disinfectants used in these sponges may help contribute to the evolution of drugresistant “super” germs. It’s easy to keep a pure cellulose sponge germfree by boiling it in a pot of water for three to five minutes, tossing it in the top rack of the dishwasher, or microwaving it on high for one minute. Pure cellulose sponges can be found in natural-food stores and hardware stores.
Homemade Natural Cleaning Solutions: Nontoxic recipes for effective cleaners.
Furniture Polish: Mix 1 teaspoon of lemon juice in 1 pint of mineral or vegetable oil. Apply a small amount to a clean cotton cloth and wipe wooden parts of furniture.
Rug Deodorizer: Deodorize dry carpets by sprinkling liberally with baking soda. Wait at least 15 minutes and vacuum. Repeat if necessary.
Mothballs: Use cedar chips or a sachet with any or all of the following: lavender flowers, rosemary, mint, white peppercorns.
Whitening Scouring Powder: Combine 1 cup baking soda, 2 teaspoons cream of tartar, 1/8 cup borax, 1/4 cup grated lemon, orange or grapefruit peel and mix well. Scrub using a damp sponge.
Glass Cleaner: Combine 1 1/2 cups vinegar, 1/2 cup water and 8 drops citrus essential oil in a spray bottle and shake well. Spray and wipe with a dry cloth or towel.