Once upon a time, people would set aside an entire week to scour and polish everything from the rafters to the floorboards, armed with a myriad of natural homemade cleaners. But today, many of us naively rely on commercially manufactured household cleaners to clean, polish, deodorize and disinfect.
How safe are the cleaning ingredients in these chemical concotions? Many of the cleaners we use every day contain ingredients that are harmful to both our health and the environment. In fact, conventional cleaning products are among the most hazardous chemicals we are exposed to—and the easiest to avoid.
Polluting the homefront
A recent five-year study by the Environmental Protection Agency reported the concentration of twenty toxic chemicals found in common household cleaners to be as much as 200 times higher inside our homes than outside. While a number of these chemicals are toxic to one degree or another, here are a few of the worst offenders.
Chlorine is found in many common cleaners, including automatic dishwashing detergent, mildew removers, and toilet-bowl cleaners. Breathing in the fumes of products containing large amounts of chlorine can irritate the respiratory tract. A highly corrosive chemical, chlorine can also damage the skin, eyes, and mucous membranes. Chlorine is considered so dangerous that it was listed as a hazardous air pollutant in the 1990 Clean Air Act, and exposure in the workplace is regulated by the federal government.
Many cleaners also expose users to carbon-based gases known as volatile organic compounds (VOCS). According to the New York University Medical Center, indoor levels of VOCs can accumulate to dangerously high concentrations and are a leading contributor to “sick building syndrome.” Able to cross the blood-brain barrier, VOCs can depress the central nervous system, leading to eye, nose, and throat irritation, headaches, dizziness, memory impairment, and even loss of consciousness.
Included in this class of chemicals are methylene chloride and para-dichlorobenzene (P-DCB), both known carcinogens. Found in a number of cleaners and degreasers—particularly aerosols—methylene chloride converts to carbon monoxide when inhaled and can cause impaired vision and coordination, nausea, fatigue, and flulike symptoms. Repeated exposure can damage the liver, kidneys, and central nervous system.
Estimated to pose the highest cancer risk of all indoor pollutants, P-DCB is used in metal polishes, mothballs, and air fresheners. P-DCB is a chlorinated hydrocarbon that is long-lasting in the environment. Stored in the fatty tissues of the body, this chemical is an irritant to the skin, throat, and eyes. Prolonged exposure to P-DCB can cause weakness, dizziness, weight loss, and liver damage.
Short-term exposure to these toxins can result in fatigue, dizziness, nausea, memory impairment, and skin, eye, and respiratory irritation within hours of use. But the cumulative effects may be even more serious. Long-term exposure has been linked to the development of cancer, respiratory disease, heart disease, immune-system suppression, birth defects, and even genetic changes. Recently discovered evidence of neurological effects is also alarming, particularly for children. Theo Colborn, author of Our Stolen Future (Plume, 1997) says, “Long before concentrations of synthetic chemicals reach sufficient levels to cause obvious physical illness or abnormalities, they can impair learning ability and cause dramatic, permanent changes in behavior, such as hyperactivity.”
Kicking the chemical habit
Luckily, protecting yourself and your family from exposure to household toxins is often as easy as taking a trip to your local health-food store or wandering into the herb garden. While not as convenient as buying ready-made cleaning products, making your own herbal cleaners is both easy and inexpensive.
A number of herbs—and their essential oils—have antibiotic, antimicrobial, and antifungal properties that rival many of the commercial cleaners found in the supermarket. In fact, the essential oils of lavender (Lavandula angustifolia) and thyme (Thymus vulgaris) are more antiseptic than phenol, the industry standard.
Note: For those who would rather buy ready-made cleaners, a growing number of natural household cleaners include herbs for their germ-killing properties and to naturally scent the products.
Kim Erickson writes on natural health and environmental issues and is the author of Drop Dead Gorgeous: Protecting Yourself from the Hidden Dangers of Cosmetics (Contemporary Books 2002).