Q&A with Mr. Green Clean: Seventh Generation's Jeffrey Hollender

Q: Why are traditional cleaners bad for the environment?

A: First, let's understand that we're talking about the environment inside your home as well as the environment outside your home. Toxic cleaners adversely affect the environment by contaminating the water or polluting the air with fumes that are dangerous to you. For example, chlorine bleach, a very common cleaner, is extremely dangerous. If you mix ammonia and chlorine, you get chloramine gas, which is extremely toxic.

Q: What's so bad about chlorine bleach?

A: If you bleach paper using chlorine you get dioxin, a deadly chemical 300,000 times more dangerous than Agent Orange. There are also many other hazards with chlorine bleach. For example, if there is chlorine in your automatic dishwashing detergent, the chlorine mixes with the food and steam and creates a gas. When the dishwasher is opened and this gas comes out, it's highly toxic. The same is true even in laundry machines but at a lower level.

Q: How do hazardous chemicals in cleaners enter the body?

A: Human skin is remarkably porous and will absorb many substances it touches into the bloodstream. We also ingest cleaner chemicals when we use these products or touch residues left on surfaces and then eat or put our hands to our mouths. Food itself is easily contaminated by cleaners used in the kitchen. And cleaner vapors and tiny droplets suspended by sprays are invariably inhaled.

Q: Can exposure to synthetic cleaners have a long-term impact?

A: We see the effects of acute exposures instantly. They're dramatic things like poisonings or burns. But chronic exposures develop over years as we regularly encounter minute amounts of chemicals. Many of these substances build up in our bodies — they don't break down or get excreted. There's a wealth of evidence that chronic exposure to them can eventually cause cancer, asthma, allergies, environmental sensitivities and endocrine disruption, which happens when chemicals mimic hormones in the body and trigger all kinds of cellular malfunctions.

Q: Do green cleaning products clean as well as traditional cleaners?

A: If they're well-engineered, absolutely. At Seventh Generation, we've spent countless lab hours developing non-toxic, biodegradable, naturally based compounds that clean just as effectively as synthetic chemicals. It takes time and investment, but powerful surfactants can be created from vegetable sources; vinegars can replace solvents; peroxide can be harnessed as a harmless bleach; and so on. There's no longer any excuse for a poor performing green cleaner. We have the technology and science to make them work perfectly.

Q: How can people tell if a cleaner is green or not?

A: Lots of products claim to be "green" but really aren't. Look for cleaners that clearly list all their ingredients and offer a statement to that effect. Honest products also provide information about the source of their ingredients. Avoid products that don't tell all or hide ingredients in categories like "surfactant" or "fragrance." Skip products with "poison," "warning" or "danger" on their labels, but don't worry too much about the term "caution" because it applies even to natural cleaners (i.e., it's not "nontoxic" since if you drink half a bottle of it you'll probably get sick). Avoid products with flammability or ventilation warnings. A lot of it is common sense. If you see suspicious ingredients, a lot of unpronounceable chemical names, etc., that's a clue that the cleaner probably isn't health- or eco-friendly.


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