Clean Without the Chemicals: Understanding Cleaning Product Labels

Many household cleaners contain harsh chemicals. Use simple, effective natural alternatives and let your family breathe easy.

| July/August 2007

We clean our homes to remove dirt and contaminants, but ironically, many common cleaning products can actually introduce allergens and poisons into our homes. Luckily, many natural solutions leave your home clean, fresh and chemical free.

Cleaners that contain strong chemicals and disinfectants pose health risks for people and pets, and when they’re washed down the drain, they contaminate our waterways and soil. Chemical-laden cleaning products can cause myriad health problems, among them headaches; dizziness; skin, respiratory and eye irritation; and asthma attacks. Some cleaners even contain known or suspected carcinogens, neurotoxins, reproductive system toxins and hormone disruptors.

Among the most toxic household products are drain, oven and toilet-bowl cleaners; chlorinated disinfectants; mildew removers; and wood and metal polishes. Even seemingly benign products, such as dish detergent, can contain toxic chemicals.

Learn from the labels

Manufacturers aren’t required to disclose all the ingredients in their cleaners—even on a product’s Materials Safety Data Sheet (MSDS). However, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) does require safety labeling in the form of signal words. “Danger” or “Poison” indicates that a product can be lethal when ingested in very small quantities. Products with “Warning” labels are also dangerous, but less so. Those marked with “Caution” are the least harmful of the three, though they still can be hazardous. Also avoid cleaners labeled “Corrosive,” “Severely Irritating,” “Strong Sensitizer,” “Highly Flammable” or “Highly Combustible.”

Avoid the common disinfectants ammonia and bleach, which are both toxic. Steer clear of chlorine bleach and detergents that contain chlorine or hypochlorite, because coming in contact with chlorine compounds can severely irritate the lungs or burn skin and eyes. Chlorine also is harmful to the environment, as it escapes into the air and water where it can react with other chemicals or combine with organic compounds, harming plant and animal life.

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