What's So Bad About Chemical Cleaning Products?

Detox your kitchen and bathroom cabinets for a cleaner home

Q: Dear EarthTalk: I’ve read that household cleaners contain cancer-causing toxic ingredients. What should I do, then, to keep my house clean but also safe for my kids? 

— Christine Stewart, via e-mail

A: While much of the research is mixed or inconclusive, a variety of human and animal studies have linked chemicals common in household cleaning products with a wide range of health risks.

The most offensive common ingredients, according to a 2006 study by the University of California Berkeley and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, are ethylene-based glycol, used commonly as a water-soluble solvent in cleaning agents and classified as a hazardous air pollutant by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and terpenes, a class of chemicals found in lemon, pine and orange oils that can morph into carcinogenic compounds when they mix with ground-level ozone.

Also, chlorine, often labeled as “sodium hypochlorite” or “hypochlorite,” is almost ubiquitous in household cleaners, unfortunately for the inhabitants of many homes. Breathing in its fumes can irritate the lungs, and as such poses a serious health risk to those with pre-existing heart or respiratory problems.

According to the non-profit Cancer Prevention Coalition, some other problematic chemicals found in many household cleaners include crystalline silica, an irritant to the eyes and lungs and a likely carcinogen, and butyl cellosolve, which has been linked to kidney and liver problems and is reportedly toxic to forming cells. The group lists dozens of other potentially dangerous ingredients in household products on the “Hazardous Ingredients in Household Products” PDF available for free on its website.

Gaiam reports that the average American household contains between three and 25 gallons of toxic materials, mostly in the form of household cleaners filled with petrochemical solvents designed to dissolve dirt. The company bemoans the fact that no law requires cleaning products manufacturers to list ingredients on their labels or to test their products for safety, leaving it up to consumers to make sure their homes are not only clean, but also non-toxic.

But there are plenty of “greener” alternatives now widely available from manufacturers like Gaiam, Earth Friendly Products, Citra-Solv, Ecover, Mrs. Meyers, Sun and Earth, SimpleGreen, Method, and Seventh Generation, among many others. Even big players are getting in on the act. Clorox recently released a new line of environmentally friendly cleaning products under the Green Works label to attract a greener clientele.

For those so inclined, making your own green cleaning solutions is easy and cheap. According to The Green Guide, consumers can “circumvent the armada of commercial cleaners” by keeping handy an ample supply of eight ingredients for nearly every do-it-yourself cleaning job: baking soda, borax, distilled white vinegar, hydrogen peroxide, lemons, olive oil, vegetable-based castile soap, and washing soda.


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Emily424's picture
User offline. Last seen 7 years 23 weeks ago. Offline
Joined: 02/19/2009

I've found some of my favorite cleaning products on GreenCupboards.com, an online retailer that tests and certifies green home and garden products.

brikhan5's picture
User offline. Last seen 6 years 8 weeks ago. Offline
Joined: 04/23/2010

Cleaning ingredients vary in the type of health hazard they pose. Some cause acute, or immediate, hazards such as skin or respiratory irritation, watery eyes, or chemical burns, while others are associated with chronic, or long-term, effects such as cancer. Thanks

techieguy22's picture
User offline. Last seen 5 years 36 weeks ago. Offline
Joined: 11/19/2010

I agree that common household cleaning products contain ingredients that are hazardous to the health. Even the sweet-smelling air fresheners have toxic chemicals. Studies and researches have proven the dangers of these cleaners. Moreover, these products are not only dangerous to humans; but they are also harmful to the environment. Laundry detergents, for instance, contain phosphates that contribute to ocean pollution. Residents should be aware of this and they should switch to natural cleaning products instead. Cleaning service should not be an option either, because they also use chemical-based cleaning agents.

batesdebra's picture
User offline. Last seen 3 years 24 weeks ago. Offline
Joined: 02/10/2013

I feel one should use natural product to clean your house, they are non toxic in nature and hence safe for kids. Also they are very effective on germs.
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jesonko's picture
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Joined: 05/26/2015

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