Deciphering Labels and Going Green to Protect Your Health and Environment
When you clean your oven, toilet, bath tile, kitchen floor, or windows, you can smell the toxins. The label even warns you to wear gloves, avoid contact with skin and eyes, and please do not breath the fumes. If it’s too dangerous to touch it can’t be clean. What kind of residues are left in your oven, where you prepare food for you family? What about that kitchen floor your children are crawling on or the bathtub they are sitting in?
These everyday products diminish indoor air quality by introducing a plethora of harmful chemicals. Is it possible that the air inside your home is 5 to 100 times more toxic than the air in Los Angeles, Atlanta, or Chicago? If you use bleach, traditional cleaning products, air fresheners, dry cleaning services, or other common household chemicals, it probably is.
The EPA reports poisonings as the #1 cause of hospital visits by children. Some hospitals report 79% of all poison control center cases involve children, 64% occur in children under age 5. The toxins commonly found under a kitchen sink are often the culprit. We welcome toxic chemicals into our homes in the name of cleanliness, but how clean is a home full of carcinogenic residues?
Green alternatives are the only alternative. As the truth about the chemical and petroleum industries leaks, consumers are faced with harsh realities. People want to protect their families, but it is hard to read between the advertising lines. Marketing gurus put flowers on bottles of poison, use the word ‘green’ to distract from a petrochemical additive, and leave out ingredient listings all together. The fact is chemical companies don’t have to list the ingredients on household cleaning products.
Here’s the research. This is not a complete or exhaustive list of all the possible ingredients in that spray that claims to be safe around food. The only way to truly get all the information is to check out the Material Safety Data Sheet or Mass Spectrometry results posted on the manufacturer’s website. I’ve divided ingredients into three categories based on safety first.
The Dark Side: Chemicals that Harm
Petrochemicals: These are petroleum based products that leave dangerous residues. These products may be derived from oil, coal, or natural gas and used to make plastics, pesticides, health care products, and cleaners. These chemicals have been linked to cancers, neurological illnesses, and environmental devastation. Dry cleaning chemicals, such as perchloroethylene, are part of this group. These chemicals are commonly listed as ethylene, propylene, benzene, benzol, annulene, phenyl hydride, diethanolamine, triethanolamine, monoethanolamine, and xylene.
Tetrachloroethylene: also called perchloroethylene, used as a dry cleaning solvent and degreaser, cause skin rashes, headaches, and dizziness Amyl acetate: a synthetic grease cutter, is a neurotoxin implicated in central nervous system depression, found in conventional furniture polishes
Naphthalene: a member of the carcinogenic benzene family derived from coal tar or made synthetically, known to bioaccumulate in marine organisms, causes allergic skin reactions and cataracts, alters kidney function and is extremely toxic to children, found in conventional deodorizers, carpet cleaners, toilet deodorizers
Methylene chloride: also called dichloromethane, is a volatile, colorless liquid with a chloroform-like odor, used in various industrial processes including paint stripping, pharmaceutical manufacturing, paint remover manufacturing, and metal cleaning and degreasing, beware of inhalation and skin exposure. OSHA considers methylene chloride to be a potential occupational carcinogen.
Ammonia: The scent alone will tell you to stay away. This chemical can irritate the lungs, eyes, and mucus membranes. It is extremely dangerous when mixed with other chemicals such as bleach. Ammonia adds nitrogen to the environment often resulting in disruptions to the ecosystem including toxic effects to plants, fish and animals. Ammonia is included as a toxic chemical on the EPA’s Community Right-to-Know list.The FDA also regulates the amount of ammonium compounds in food. Ammonia is found in conventional window cleaners.
Chlorine: The bleaching agent in household bleach such as Clorox. Though it will get whites whiter, this chemical is extremely irritating to the lungs, skin, and mucus membranes. It was used as a powerful poison in World War I. Chlorine is the household chemical most frequently involved in household poisonings. Chlorine also ranks first in causing industrial injuries and deaths resulting from large industrial accidents. The residues left behind, known as organochlorides, have been linked to many cancers including breast cancer. Studies have also shown a link between chlorine exposure from pools and the development of asthma in young children.
Aerosol Sprays: Once contained chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) until prohibited because of effects on the ozone layer. The most common replacements are mixtures of volatile hydrocarbons, typically propane, n-butane and isobutane, all flammable petrochemicals.
The Green Side: Safe for You, Green for the Planet
Hydrogen Peroxide: This common first aid kit essential can act as a bleaching agent and disinfect surfaces. It is not recommended on colored fabrics. It works, but if it is the primary ingredient in your cleaning product, better to buy the 89 cent version at the drugstore.
Enzyme: It’s a protein. Enzymes occur naturally in our foods, our bodies, and our environment. The enzymes in cleaning products are designed to munch apart the grime. Most enzymes are safe on a variety of surfaces and even fabrics. They do not bleach or stain or have fragrance. Enzymes are a truly natural means to clean.
Mineral Salts: From table salt to your granite countertop, there are plenty of mineral compounds in your home. You may have used common table salt and ice to scour a scaly coffee pot. Baking soda is common in detergents and even toothpaste. Some salts have been found especially effective on soap scum.
Lemon juice: This fruit juice is acidic and can bleach some stains. It can leave behind sugars, so be sure to rinse surface with plenty of water. Makes a great alternative to beauty creams or acne medication as it dries up oils and brightens skin.
Baking soda: This common baking ingredient is a basic salty scrub. It can help remove mineral deposits (with a lot of elbow grease) and works great to freshen carpet or laundry. Sprinkle on and vacuum up. It can remove tarnish and was even used to clean the Statue of Liberty.
The Fence Sitters: Interesting Origins, Inconsistent Results
Boric acid: Although generally not considered to be much more toxic than table salt, it is poisonous if taken internally or inhaled (can damage liver, kidneys, mucous membranes, and nervous system). This chemical has been considered green because it naturally occurs. The common insect deterrent may be toxic to aquatic life.
Vinegar: Common pantry item is an acidic solution that can be used on glass. It will remove fingerprints but leaves a sour smell.
Surfactant: Comes from ‘surface acting agent’ and literally means an agent that acts on surface tension. For cleaning purposes, it breaks up soil, dirt, and grime. Avoid chemical surfactants. Plant-based surfactants are safe and can be very effective.
The green cleaning product revolution is evolving. Now there are numerous products on the market that aim to protect you, your family, and the environment. But no two eco-friendly products are alike. This guide to ingredients should help you dissect the labeling. Look for cleaners that are enzyme based, plant-based, and fragrance-free. Perfumes and dyes contribute to respiratory problems and multiple chemical sensitivity disorders.
The first step to protecting yourself and your family from common household toxins is information. Then, once you’ve gotten rid of the junk under your sink, check out great plant-based alternatives for your entire home. Ingredients are everything, so search websites and natural stores. When it comes to protecting your health and the environment, it’s best to be choosy.