Are Household Cleaning Products Really That Bad?

Every day we are exposed to hundreds of chemicals, from the receipts we get after purchasing items at the store to the fumes released by lemon fresh floor cleaners. A personal care product use survey, conducted by the nonprofit organization the Environmental Working Group, found that the average person uses nine personal care products each day with 126 chemical ingredients.  In the last decade, people have become more aware of the products they are using and the chemicals that are inside of them. There has been a focus on the cleaning products we use in our homes. When cleaning products are used, the exposure, over a lifetime, may cause harmful side effects like headaches, asthma and cancer and many cleaning product labels warn that their contents could be potentially harmful to children and pets. Cleaning products have chemicals and allergens that can trigger reactions such as asthma attacks and skin rashes or are linked to cancer and infertility. This has caused a growing trend towards using natural cleaners that are safer for children and pets, as well as the environment.

 The Environmental Working Group created the Guide to Healthy Cleaning in 2012. The guide reviewed and rated more than 2,000 popular household cleaning products based on their ingredients and the information they disclosed about their contents. They found that only seven percent of brands adequately disclosed the contents in their cleaning products. Of the cleaning products they assessed, 53% contained ingredients known to harm the lungs. The study also found that 22% contained ingredients known to cause asthma to develop in otherwise healthy individuals. The Guide to Healthy Cleaning also examined over 1,000 ingredients in cleaning products. They discovered well known carcinogens including chloroform which was found in chlorine, formaldehyde which is used as a preservative in cleaning products and 1, 4-dioxane, which is a common contaminant of detergency chemicals. Fumes from cleaning products may trigger asthma attacks in people who are already diagnosed with asthma.

cleaning productsCleaning products also pose a risk to the environment. Harmful chemicals are found in rivers and streams as cleaning products are washed down drains or discharged in wastewater. Unfortunately, there has been little funding and support by government agencies and research facilities for research on the long-term health effects of chemicals in everyday household cleaning products on humans and the environment. There is also very little data to link risks associated with cleaning product ingredients.

Weak Federal Regulation

The Toxic Substance Control Act of 1976, administered by the Environmental Protection Agency, regulates new and existing chemicals used in everyday products. Unfortunately, this law is outdated, flawed and fails to protect consumers from exposure to harmful chemicals. According to the Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families Coalition, the act approved 60,000 chemicals that were already in existence prior to 1976, including asbestos, and only 200 of those have been tested. Over 80,000 chemicals have been on the market and ready for use since the Toxic Substance Control Act was enacted and the EPA requires very few to be tested for potential harm and effects to human and environment health. The TSCA also allows 20% of those 80,000 chemicals, currently on the market, to be kept secret, making it difficult for consumers to find the information they need to decide if a certain product is safe or not.

Woman choosing laundry detergent in grocery store.Hidden Ingredients On Product Labels  

Unlike the food, cosmetic and drug industry where ingredient labels are mandatory, cleaning product manufacturers are not required to disclose all of the contents in their products. Many manufacturers describe the ingredients in their products only by their broad chemical or functional class like “alcohol ethoxylate” or “preservative” rather than identifying specific chemicals. Some companies won’t disclose certain chemicals that make up fragrances, like the lemon fresh scent, claiming that they are secret ingredients that make the products special. Customers are lacking information to choose a product based on safer ingredients. Most major cleaning supply manufacturers publish a full list of ingredients on their website or require customers to call in, but many do not, making it impossible to know everything that is in our cleaning products. When there is no product information on the back, then ingredients are hidden from consumers and we are left in the dark. Just like our food, we should be able to shop for a product at the store and read the ingredients in their entirety in order to make an educated decision. Nonprofits, like the Environmental Working Group and Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families Coalition, are calling for current legislation to be updated requiring manufacturers and legislators to disclose all ingredients in their products for household cleaning supplies.

House cleaning productGreen Doesn’t Always Mean Better

Not all green products are made equal. Just because a product is labeled as natural does not mean that it is nontoxic. Eco-friendly brands can be misleading with their ingredients and not disclose all of their contents, as well. If you are considering making your own homemade cleaning products, natural household items like lemon, vinegar, cleaning salt, baking soda and essential oils like lavender and rosemary can be used as substitutes. It has also been found that foods like apples, beets, parsley, green, leafy vegetables, green tea and flax seed can help the body detox from contaminants.

Below are some useful tips for the next time you want to clean your house and avoid using harmful chemicals.

Know the cleaning products you are using. Look up the brands on Environmental Working Group’s Hall of Shame Guide to Healthy Cleaning for safety ratings of name brand products and see which ingredients they contain.

Use trusted green cleaning products. According to the EWG, brands like Whole Food’s Green Mission and Green Shield Organic are leading green brands that sell nontoxic cleaning products. Other safer, eco-friendly brands include Seventh Generation, Mrs. Meyer’s, Honest and Method.

Make your own cleaning products. The magazine Real Simple made a list of 66 of all-natural cleaning solutions from common household items that can be used as an alternative to store-bought cleaning products.

Support organizations that are calling for stricter reform. Check out the Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families Coalition to find out how you can join their efforts to change the current legislation.

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