What You Don’t Know About Your Cleaning Products Can Hurt You

By Martha Shaw (MVTimes, Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts)

While the chemicals in modern household cleansers may dissolve more dirt and grime faster than ever before, the airborne particles and invisible toxic film left behind easily go unnoticed. There are thousands of chemicals lurking in cleaning solutions that are proven to be hazardous to our health and the environment in varying degrees. For many reasons, medical research can’t tell us exactly how much human exposure is too much. What we do know is that the household cleaning product market is nearly $18 billion strong and the industry has one of the most powerful lobbying forces in Washington to protect its liberty to produce and sell chemicals to consumers with few restrictions regarding health and the environment.

The average household contains anywhere from 3 to 25 gallons of toxic materials, most of which are cleaning agents, degreasers, polishers, disinfectants, waxes, sanitizers, deodorizers, anti-redeposition agents, bleaches, drain clearers, oven cleaners, builders, mildewcides, enzymes and optical brighteners. According to research conducted by the EPA, the air inside the average household is two to three times more polluted than air just outside its walls. One five-year study revealed that the levels of certain chemicals in many homes were 70 times greater than they were outdoors. Activists claim that we are all guinea pigs. What statistics do reveal is that homemakers and cleaning professionals have a higher than average incidence of cancer.

According to the Children’s Health and Environmental Coalition (www.checnet.org) small children are the most vulnerable. The ratio of chemical concentration to body size is higher, they touch most everything, and they have a habit of putting fingers and toes in their mouths. The same observations are true about pets. Many organizations have been founded to inform the public on how to keep homes and yards safe from toxic household cleaning products. Others focus on related health conditions. On the Island, groups have formed to look at how toxins affect human health and other forms of life when they pollute soil, surface water and groundwater. A common link among these local alliances is the Vineyard Conservation Society (www.vcsmv.org).

Across the country, there are other public-interest groups that are advocating for Right-to-Know laws that would require the chemical manufacturers of household products to list ingredients on the packaging. To keep your home safe, a rule of thumb is to choose products that voluntarily disclose the ingredients — even if you don’t quite know what they are. Instead, an arsenal of cleaning products have warnings: keep out of reach of children; hazardous to humans and pets; eye irritant; avoid food contact; flammable; avoid contact with eyes, skin and clothing; harmful if swallowed and do not induce vomiting. The most common environmental warnings are variations on: Do not reuse bottle. Rinse bottle carefully. Discard in trash.

While the big names in cleaning products can fuel a cleaning frenzy to get our homes cleaner than clean through enormous expenditures in advertising, smaller brands are often overlooked. But a growing number of safe, non-toxic cleaning products are getting a foot in the market. Finding these products requires looking a little harder. Name brands including Seventh Generation and Sun & Earth are safe choices available in some Island stores, and you can order others on-line at sites including www.ecos.com. Another healthy alternative is to make your own. Natural acids in orange, lemon, and vinegar and other things occurring in nature cut through grease and grime, and baking soda is an excellent abrasive. Water, the great universal solvent, does a great job of cleaning up most everyday messes. There are also non-toxic alternatives for almost every use of pesticides. For instance, pepper and natural boric acid sprinkled along baseboards, crawl spaces, and cupboards can create a barrier to insects.

Plenty of literature is available on fighting dirt and germs with healthy product choices and home remedies. You can download a free “Guide to a Toxin-free Home” at www.seventhgeneration.com, which also includes an index to chemicals. Other good sources are www.greenseal.org, “The Sierra Club Green Guide,” and the “Safe Shopper’s Bible: A Consumer’s Guide to Non-Toxic Household Products, Cosmetics and Food.”

Choosing environmentally safe products is a topic close to home on an island where natural resources are strikingly finite. Very little research is available on the individual destiny paths of toxins once they are poured, washed, and flushed into our septic systems and waterworks. While the dangers of chlorine-based chemicals and phosphates to surface and groundwater are well documented, others are not.

The best way to protect your family and the Island’s eco-system from toxic household cleaning products is to use only products that state specifically that they are toxic-free and earth-friendly. Then you leave nothing to chance.

Martha Shaw is a science and media specialist who focuses on sustainable practices. She lives in Oak Bluffs and is the founder of Earth Advertising, a production company that promotes conscientious consumption. She is on the New England Aquarium Marine Advisory Board and Vineyard Unplugged, and is a board director of MVTV.