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8 Scary Cleaning Chemicals to Avoid

The average household contains about 62 toxic chemicals, say  environmental  experts. We’re exposed to them routinely — from the  phthalates in synthetic  fragrances to the noxious fumes in oven  cleaners. Ingredients in common  household products have been linked to  asthma, cancer, reproductive disorders,  hormone disruption and  neurotoxicity.

Manufacturers argue that in small amounts these toxic ingredients aren’t   likely to be a problem, but when we’re exposed to them routinely, and  in  combinations that haven’t been studied, it’s impossible to accurately  gauge the  risks. While a few products cause immediate reactions from  acute exposure  (headaches from fumes, skin burns from accidental  contact), different problems  arise with repeated contact. Chronic  exposure adds to the body’s “toxic burden”  — the number of chemicals  stored in its tissues at a given time.

No one can avoid exposure to toxic chemicals altogether, but it is  possible  to reduce it significantly. In the following pages, experts weigh in on the  worst toxic offenders commonly  found in household cleaning products, and offer  ways to swap them for  healthier, safer options.

How to Make a Non-Toxic Cleaning Kit

1. Phthalates

Found in: Many fragranced household products, such  as air  fresheners, dish soap, even toilet paper. Because of proprietary  laws,  companies don’t have to disclose what’s in their scents, so you  won’t find  phthalates on a label. If you see the word “fragrance” on a  label, there’s a  good chance phthalates are present.

Health Risks: Phthalates are known endocrine  disruptors.  Men with higher phthalate compounds in their blood had  correspondingly reduced  sperm counts, according to a 2003 study  conducted by researchers from the  Centers for Disease Control and  Prevention and the Harvard School of Public  Health. Although exposure to  phthalates mainly occurs through inhalation, it  can also happen through  skin contact with scented soaps, which is a significant  problem, warns  Alicia Stanton, MD, coauthor of Hormone  Harmony (Healthy Life Library, 2009). Unlike the digestive system, the  skin has  no safeguards against toxins. Absorbed chemicals go straight to  organs.

Healthier Choice: When possible choose fragrance-free  or  all-natural organic products. Beth Greer, author of Super Natural Home, recommends bypassing aerosol or   plug-in air fresheners and instead using essential oils or simply  opening  windows to freshen the air. Besides causing more serious effects  like endocrine  disruption, “Aerosol sprays and air fresheners can be  migraine and asthma  triggers,”  she says. Also consider adding more  plants to your home:  They’re natural air detoxifiers.

Gender-Bending Phthalates

2. Perchloroethylene or “PERC”

Found in: Dry-cleaning solutions, spot removers, and carpet  and upholstery cleaners.

Health Risks: Perc is a neurotoxin, according to the  chief  scientist of environmental protection for the New York Attorney  General’s  office. And the EPA classifies perc as a “possible carcinogen”  as well. People  who live in residential buildings where dry cleaners  are located have reported  dizziness, loss of coordination and other  symptoms. While the EPA has ordered a  phase-out of perc machines in  residential buildings by 2020, California is  going even further and  plans to eliminate all use of perc by 2023 because of  its suspected  health risks. The route of exposure is most often inhalation:  that  telltale smell on clothes when they return from the dry cleaner, or the   fumes that linger after cleaning carpets.

Healthier Choice: Curtains, drapes and clothes that are   labeled “dry clean only” can be taken instead to a “wet cleaner,” which  uses  water-based technology rather than chemical solvents. The EPA  recently  recognized liquid carbon dioxide (CO2) as an environmentally  preferable  alternative to more toxic dry-cleaning solvents. Ask your dry  cleaner which  method they use. For a safer spot remover, look for a  nontoxic brand like  Ecover at a natural market, or rub undiluted castile  soap directly on stains  before washing.

3. Triclosan

Found in: Most liquid dishwashing detergents and hand soaps  labeled “antibacterial.”

Health Risks: Triclosan is an aggressive antibacterial   agent that can promote the growth of drug-resistant bacteria. Explains  Sutton: “The American Medical Association has found no evidence that  these  antimicrobials make us healthier or safer, and they’re  particularly concerned  because they don’t want us overusing  antibacterial chemicals — that’s how  microbes develop resistance, and  not just to these [household antibacterials],  but also to real  antibiotics that we need.” Other studies have now found  dangerous  concentrations of triclosan in rivers and streams, where it is toxic  to  algae. The EPA is currently investigating whether triclosan may also   disrupt endocrine (hormonal) function. It is a probable carcinogen. At  press  time, the agency was reviewing the safety of triclosan in consumer   products.

Healthier Choice: Use simple detergents and soaps with   short ingredient lists, and avoid antibacterial products with triclosan  for  home use. If you’re hooked on hand sanitizer, choose one that is  alcohol-based  and without triclosan.

4. Quarternary Ammonium Compounds,  or “QUATS”

Found in: Fabric softener liquids and sheets, most household  cleaners labeled “antibacterial.”

Health Risks: Quats are another type of antimicrobial,  and  thus pose the same problem as triclosan by helping breed  antibiotic-resistant  bacteria. They’re also a skin irritant; one 10-year  study of contact dermatitis  found quats to be one of the leading  causes. According to Rebecca Sutton, PhD,  a senior scientist at the Environmental Working Group (EWG), they’re also  suspected as a culprit for  respiratory disorders: “There’s evidence that even  healthy people who  are [exposed to quats] on a regular basis develop asthma as  a result.”

Healthier Choice: You don’t really need fabric softener  or  dryer sheets to soften clothes or get rid of static: Simple vinegar  works just  as well. “Vinegar is the natural fabric softener of choice  for many reasons,” explains Karyn Siegel-Maier in her book The Naturally Clean Home (Storey Publishing, 2008). “Not only is it nontoxic, it also removes  soap residue in the rinse cycle and  helps to prevent static cling in the  dryer.” White vinegar is your best choice  for general cleaning; other  types can stain.

Alternatives to chemical disinfectants abound, including antibacterial,   antifungal tea-tree oil. Mix a few drops of tea-tree oil and a  tablespoon of  vinegar with water in a spray bottle for a safe, germ  killing, all-purpose  cleaner. Add a couple of drops of lavender  essential oil for scent.

5.  2-Butoxyethanol

Found in: Window, kitchen and multipurpose cleaners.

Health Risks: 2-butoxyethanol is the key ingredient in  many  window cleaners and gives them their characteristic sweet smell. It  belongs in  the category of “glycol ethers,” a set of powerful solvents  that don’t mess  around. Law does not require 2-butoxyethanol to be  listed on a product’s label.  According to the EPA’s Web site, in  addition to causing sore throats when  inhaled, at high levels glycol  ethers can also contribute to narcosis,  pulmonary edema, and severe  liver and kidney damage. Although the EPA sets a  standard on  2-butoxyethanol for workplace safety, Sutton warns, “If you’re  cleaning  at home in a confined area, like an unventilated bathroom, you can   actually end up getting 2-butoxyethanol in the air at levels that are  higher  than workplace safety standards.”

Healthier Choice: Clean mirrors and windows with  newspaper  and diluted vinegar. For other kitchen tasks, stick to simple  cleaning  compounds like Bon Ami powder; it’s made from natural  ingredients like ground  feldspar and baking soda without the added  bleach or fragrances found in most  commercial cleansers. You can also  make your own formulas with baking soda,  vinegar and essential oils. See “DIY Cleaners” on page 5 for a list of clean  concoctions.

6. Ammonia

Found in: Polishing agents for bathroom fixtures, sinks and  jewelry; also in glass cleaner.

Health Risks: Because ammonia evaporates and doesn’t  leave  streaks, it’s another common ingredient in commercial window  cleaners. That  sparkle has a price. “Ammonia is a powerful irritant,”  says Donna Kasuska,  chemical engineer and president of ChemConscious,  Inc., a risk-management  consulting company. “It’s going to affect you  right away. The people who will  be really affected are those who have  asthma, and elderly people with lung  issues and breathing problems. It’s  almost always inhaled. People who get a lot  of ammonia exposure, like  housekeepers, will often develop chronic bronchitis  and asthma.” Ammonia  can also create a poisonous gas if it’s mixed with  bleach.

Healthier Choice: Vodka. “It will produce a reflective shine  on any metal or mirrored surface,” explains Lori Dennis, author of Green Interior Design (Allsworth Press, 2010). And  toothpaste makes an outstanding silver polish.

7. Chlorine

Found in: Scouring powders, toilet bowl cleaners, mildew  removers, laundry whiteners, household tap water.

Health Risks: “With chlorine we have so many avenues of   exposure,” says Kasuska. “You’re getting exposed through fumes and  possibly  through skin when you clean with it, but because it’s also in  city water to get  rid of bacteria, you’re also getting exposed when you  take a shower or bath.  The health risks from chlorine can be acute, and  they can be chronic; it’s a  respiratory irritant at an acute level. But  the chronic effects are what people  don’t realize: It may be a serious  thyroid disrupter.”

Healthier Choice: For scrubbing, stick to Bon Ami or  baking  soda. Toilet bowls can be cleaned with vinegar, and vinegar or  borax powder  both work well for whitening clothes. So does the  chlorine-free oxygen bleach  powder made by Biokleen. To reduce your  exposure to chlorine through tap water,  install filters on your kitchen  sink and in the shower.

8. Sodium  Hydroxide

Found in: Oven cleaners and drain openers.

Health Risks: Otherwise known as lye, sodium hydroxide  is  extremely corrosive: If it touches your skin or gets in your eyes, it  can cause  severe burns. Routes of exposure are skin contact and  inhalation. Inhaling  sodium hydroxide can cause a sore throat that lasts  for days.

Healthier Choice: You can clean the grimiest oven with   baking-soda paste — it just takes a little more time and elbow grease  (see  recipes in “DIY Cleaners” on page 5). Unclog drains with a mechanical “snake” tool, or try this approach from the Green Living Ideas Web  site: Pour a cup of  baking soda and a cup of vinegar down the drain and  plug it for 30 minutes.  After the bubbles die down, run hot water down  the drain to clear the  debris.

Beware of Greenwashing

If a cleaning product at your supermarket proclaims itself “green,” “natural” or “biodegradable,” that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s  nontoxic. In 2010 the  environmental consulting firm TerraChoice Group  produced a report called “The  Sins of Greenwashing.” In it the group  found more than 95 percent of so-called  green consumer products had  committed at least one “greenwashing sin,” like  making an environmental  claim that may be truthful but unimportant. “CFC-free,” for example, is a  common one, since CFCs are banned by law. Donna Kasuska of   ChemConscious offers this advice: “When gauging ecological claims, look  for  specifics. ‘Biodegradable in three to five days’ holds more meaning  than “biodegradable” as most substances will eventually break down with  enough  time.”

DIY Cleaners

Clean your home safely — and cheaply — with the following recipes:

Basic sink cleanser – Combine ½ cup baking soda with  six  drops essential oil (such as lavender, rosemary, lemon, lime or  orange). Rinse  sink well with hot water. Sprinkle combination into sink  and pour ¼ cup vinegar  over top. After the fizz settles, scrub with a  damp sponge or cloth. Rinse  again with hot water. (From The Naturally Clean Home, by Karyn Siegel-Maier.)

Oven cleanser — Put a heatproof dish filled with  water in  the oven. Turn on the heat to let the steam soften any baked-on  grease. Once  the oven is cool, apply a paste of equal parts salt,  baking soda, and vinegar,  and scrub. (From Super  Natural Home, by Beth Greer.)

Bathroom mildew remover – Good  ventilation helps  prevent mildew and mold. When they do occur, make a spray  with 2 cups of  water and 1/4 teaspoon each of tea-tree and lavender oil. Shake  first  and spray on trouble spots. The oils break down the mildew so there’s no   need to wipe it down. (From Green  Interior Design, by Lori Dennis.)

Carpet shampoo – Mix 3 cups water, ¾ cup  vegetable-based  liquid soap, and 10 drops peppermint essential oil. Rub  the foam into soiled  areas with a damp sponge. Let dry thoroughly and  then vacuum. (From The Naturally Clean Home.)

Laundry soap — Try “soap nuts” made from the dried  fruit  of the Chinese soapberry tree. Available in natural groceries and  online, the  reusable soap nuts come in a cotton sack that goes into the  washing machine  with clothes.

Dusting — Skip the furniture polishes. Instead, use a   microfiber cloth. Made from synthetic fibers that are then split into  hundreds  of smaller microfibers, they capture dust more efficiently than  regular rags.  If necessary, a little olive oil makes a fine polishing  agent.

How to Make a Non-Toxic Cleaning Kit

By Jessie Sholl, Experience Life

Experience Life magazine is an award-winning health and fitness  publication that aims to empower people to live their best, most authentic  lives, and challenges the conventions of hype, gimmicks and superficiality in  favor of a discerning, whole-person perspective. Visit   to learn more and to sign  up for the Experience Life newsletter, or to subscribe  to the print or digital version.


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