The dirty truth about cleaning products

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What does being “green” actually mean? In her new book “Green Goes With Everything,” Sloan Barnett shares several simple steps you can take to live a healthier life while helping keep the planet clean. In this excerpt, Barnett writes about the dangers of some of the most common household cleaners. Who knew being clean could be so dirty?

Have you ever considered how odd it is that there are warning labels on cleaning products? I mean, think about that: they’re supposed to be ridding your home of bad stuff, not adding to it — much less potentially making you sick! A good stand-up comedian could build an entire act out of this one bizarre fact.

Only it’s not funny.

And here’s something even less amusing: The labels on cleaning products don’t even tell you about most of the really nasty stuff that’s inside them. If these products are as safe as they’re claimed to be, why don’t the companies tell us what’s in them? Call me suspicious, but I honestly don’t think it’s because the recipe is top secret. If it was, there wouldn’t be so many competing products with identical ingredients.

Don’t look to the government for help on this one. The government only requires companies to list “chemicals of known concern” on their labels. The key word here is “known.” The fact is that the government has no idea whether most of the chemicals used in everyday cleaning products are safe because it doesn’t test them, and it doesn’t require manufacturers to test them either. Actually, under the terms of the Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which administers the act, can’t require chemical companies to prove the safety of their products unless the agency itself can show the product poses a health risk — which the EPA does not have the resources to do since, according to one estimate, it receives some two thousand new applications for approval every year. How tough is their review? You decide: In 2003, according to the Environmental Working Group, an agency watchdog, the EPA approved most applications in three weeks, even though more than half had provided no information on toxicity at all.

Here’s another way of understanding how little is known: According to the EPA, of the nearly three thousand top selling chemicals in the U.S., only 7 percent have a full set of basic toxicity information.

For the most part, the EPA simply relies on voluntary testing agreements with major manufacturers. Last time I checked the dictionary, “voluntary” meant “if you feel like it.”

Over at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), drug companies follow, and indeed embrace, a more rigorous and respected process of testing before a medicine is approved for public use. But most of the things you buy in a drugstore aren’t drugs, and there is no such process for testing and approving the vast array of chemicals used in literally thousands of other everyday products and cleaners.

So there it is: There’s seldom any way for you to know either what kinds of chemicals are in tub cleaner, detergent, shampoo, air freshener, nail polish, makeup, or anything else, or whether any of the ingredients are toxic. About the only information we’re commonly given is what the warning label on the product as a whole says — assuming it has one. But even here, the warning is in code.

Oh sure, if there’s a skull and crossbones and the word “poison” plastered on the container, we know it’s really dangerous stuff. But there are other levels of danger. The EPA assigns toxicity levels to products like cleaners and pesticides based upon how much harm they’re likely to cause if you swallow, inhale, or absorb them through your skin. How they measure this is pretty technical. To make things easier for the rest of us, they use signal words to explain the level of potential harm. To be sure that even children understand what these words mean, the EPA has published a document aimed just at them. And here’s what it says.

Danger is the strongest signal word. If a label has the word “danger” on it, your parents must be extremely careful using the product. If it is used the wrong way, you could get very sick, be hurt for a long time, go blind or even die. Danger is also used on products that could explode if they get hot.

Warning is less strong than danger, but it still means that you could get really sick or become seriously hurt. Warning is also used to identify products that can easily catch on fire.

Caution shows that the product could hurt you, but it is less harmful than products with a danger or warning signal word. Caution is used on products that could bother your skin, make you sick if you breathed the fumes, or really hurt if the product got in your eyes.

One of the things the manufacturers do want you to know is that their cleaning products smell nice. If they’re not trumpeting the smell on the front — Lemon Scented! Mountain Fresh! — they’ll at least note “fragrance” on the ingredients list. This should not make you happy. This should make you worry.

Fragrances may incorporate chemicals called phthalates. No, not Pilates, “phthalates.” That’s pronounced simply thahl-ates, thank goodness, but there’snothing simple about them.They’re a class of synthetic chemicals, and they’re almost everywhere you look today. There are more than two dozen different types of phthalates commonly used by the chemical industry. One of their uses is in fragrances, where they stabilize synthetic perfumes. If the cleaning product you have in your hand says “fragrance” on the bottle, it pretty much means there are phthalates in there. For example, consider “air fresheners” (I love that term): In 2007, the Natural Resources Defense Council analyzed fourteen of the leading air fresheners on the market and found phthalates in all but two. And none specifically identified phthalates on their ingredient list — just “fragrance.” Phthalates are also used to make plastics flexible and soft and are in everything from teething rings to toothbrushes, vinyl flooring to shower curtains, plastic wrap to food containers.

You know that weird smell you get when you open up a new shower curtain? That’s in part thanks to phthalates. We’ll get to all the other ways they’re used in later chapters, but the thing you need to know here is that manufacturers use them to extend the shelf life of smells in cleaning products.

Why should you care? I mean, after all, cleaning is tough enough; if it at least smells good, that's an improvement, right? Certainly the manufacturers would like you to think that, but the government — not just ours, but the European Union’s, too — has reservations. Both the EPA and the Department of Health and Human Services have labeled some types of phthalates as “probable carcinogens” — which means they cause cancer in animals and may cause cancer in humans. The FDA calls them “possibly harmful.” The EU has banned some of them outright. The chemical industry counters that research showing phthalate harm in rodents isn’t relevant to human exposure and that these chemicals are safe as normally used. The fact is that neither the industry nor the government is sure; there simply have not been long-term studies to answer the question one way or the other.

While the jury is still out — or maybe hung — on phthalates, the toxic danger of ingredients common in many household cleaners is well documented. Here’s a short list of big ugly chemical names; next to them are their known dangers. Even if you use a magnifying glass, you may not find many of these names on the labels of the cleaners in your house because, as we’ve said, the government doesn’t require most of them to be listed. (If you want to know what’s in your cleaners, contact the manufacturer and ask for the MSDS manufacturing specification sheets.) The following chemicals are ones we’re going to hear about a lot in the pages to come; this is just an introduction.

Ingredient dangers

  • Ammonia: Fatal if swallowed; skin, lung, throat irritant; can cause blindness
  • Butyl Cellosolve: Irritation and tissue damage from inhalation
  • Formaldehyde: Known carcinogen
  • Hydrochloric Acid: Fatal if swallowed; concentrated fumes harmful
  • Naphtha: Depresses the central nervous system
  • Perchloroethylene: Damages liver, kidney, nervous system
  • Petroleum Distillates: Highly flammable; can damage lung tissue and nerve cells
  • Phenols: Extremely dangerous; suspected carcinogen
  • Propylene Glycol: Ingestion can damage kidneys, lungs, heart, and nervous system
  • Sodium Hydroxide (lye): Highly caustic. Contact can cause severe damage to eyes, skin, mouth, and throat; can cause liver and kidney damage
  • Sodium Hypochlorite (chlorine bleach): Contact can cause severe damage to eyes, skin, mouth, and throat; can cause liver and kidney damage; causes more poisoning exposures than any household chemical
  • Sodium Lauryl Sulfate: Skin irritant
  • Sulfuric Acid: Dangerous. Can burn skin. Exposure to concentrated fumes can be carcinogenic
  • Trichloroethane: Damages liver and kidney

Researchers have shown that, in sufficient amounts, many of these chemicals are dangerous. Many of these studies were on laboratory animals. Does that mean the same thing for people like you and me? Or our children? It’s hard to know. Often no one’s asked those questions before. But that’s just the beginning. What happens when you combine these chemicals? Well, we know about some of those reactions. For example, take the common shower stall: tile walls, glass door. There’s mold in the grouting between the tiles and you spray on any of the most common mold killers, most of which contain chlorine bleach (you can’t miss it; the stink is ten times worse than any municipal swimming pool you’ve ever been in).

Okay, now you look at that glass door and see it’s spotted. So you grab your trusty blue ammonia-based window cleaner and guess what? Those two chemicals — chlorine and ammonia — instantly create a toxic, lung-damaging gas cloud. Turn the hot shower on to rinse the cleaners away and it actually gets worse. The shower stall is clean, all right, but you’ve just inhaled some really dangerous stuff.

You can almost hear the manufacturers crying, “We said right on the label you shouldn’t do that.” To which you shrug and say, “Hey, I’m just trying to get the tile and the glass clean, with the stuff you made for each.” And maybe you add, “If this stuff is for cleaning, how come it’s so dangerous?”

We’ve just had a (somewhat unsettling) look at just a few of the chemicals typically found in household cleaners and related products. Here’s a closer look at the products themselves — you know, the ones under the sink in your kitchen or bathroom:

Aerosols: Lots of household products come in aerosol form: air fresheners, window and counter cleaners, deodorants, hair spray, furniture polish, and more. What they spray (sometimes propelled by butane) can include formaldehyde, phenols, toluene, and phthalates, among other toxins or carcinogens. Aerosols like these can and do cause skin, eye, and throat irritation and may also damage your lungs.

Air fresheners and room deodorizers: Their toxins can include naphthalene, terpenes, and dichlorobenzene, among others. Some dichlorobenzenes have been shown to reduce lung function and are possible carcinogens. Some plug-in air fresheners contain chemicals that react with ozone to create formaldehyde, a carcinogen and respiratory irritant. Many air fresheners also include phthalates.

All-purpose cleaners: Many contain solvents and surfactants suspected of causing or aggravating asthma symptoms; phthalates; formaldehyde; and ethylene glycol butyl ether, which has been shown to cause reproductive problems such as testicular damage, reduced fertility, death of embryos, and birth defects in animal studies. Some contain morpholine, which can cause liver and kidney damage, and butyl cellosolve, a neurotoxin.

Antibacterial cleaners: Many contain triclosan, a chemical that may increase the resistance of some bacteria to antibiotics.

Automatic dishwashing detergent: These products typically contain complex phosphates (banned in laundry detergent), which pollute waterways by fostering oxygen-depleting algae blooms, and chlorine, which can become a harmful vapor during the drying cycle. Many common rinse aids are banned by the European Union.

Carpet cleaners: Toxic fumes, principally naphthalene (a carcinogen), are especially dangerous to children who play on carpets after they’re cleaned. The majority of poison exposures from carpet and upholstery cleaners were for children under six. Fumes can also cause kidney and liver damage.

Chlorine bleach: Chlorine bleach can cause severe irritation to the eyes and skin, and its vapor or mist can cause damage to the respiratory tract and aggravate asthma, emphysema, chronic bronchitis and other respiratory conditions.

Degreasers: Many contain butyl cellosolve, a chemical that irritates mucous membranes. May also cause kidney or liver damage or depress the nervous system. Industrial degreasers are often diluted with kerosene, which can damage lungs and dissolve essential fatty tissue around cells.

Dishwashing liquid: Most include petroleum-based surfactants that stay around in the environment and fragrances stabilized with phthalates.

Disinfectants: May contain any of several toxic chemicals, including formaldehyde, cresols, ammonia, phenols, and chlorine bleach, all of which should be kept away from the skin and some of which can be hazardous to internal organs and the central nervous system. Also may contain triclosan, which may create resistant bacteria.

Drain cleaner: One of the most dangerous products found in the home. Ingredients often include lye and sulfuric acid, both of which are severely caustic and corrosive to skin, airways, and eyes.

Floor and furniture polish: Usually contain cresols and petroleum distillates, which are toxic chemicals that can cause skin and eye irritation, along with damage to the central nervous system. Fragrance includes phthalates. Vapors can contaminate indoor air for days after use.

Glass cleaner: Some contain ammonia, a poison that can irritate skin, eyes, and the respiratory system. Some also contain butyl cellosolve, which is potentially toxic.

Laundry detergent: Many contain synthetic surfactants; fragrances can cause skin irritation and allergic reactions and often contain phthalates.

Mold and mildew removers: Many of these products are essentially a mix of water and bleach, and other chemicals such as butyl cellosolve, with their inherent danger to the respiratory system. Some may also contain pesticides.

Oven cleaners: Like drain cleaners, extremely dangerous because they can contain lye which can cause severe damage to eyes, skin, mucous membranes, mouth, throat, esophagus, and stomach. Aerosol versions are easily inhaled. They can be fatal if swallowed.

Scouring cleansers: Many contain butyl cellosolve, which can irritate mucous membranes and cause liver and kidney damage. Many brands also contain chlorine bleach and silica, an abrasive that can be dangerous if inhaled.

Toilet cleaners: Many contain chlorine and hydrochloric acid, among other chemicals, which can be harmful.

Tub, tile, and sink cleaner: Many contain chlorine and may contribute to the formation of organochlorines, a dangerous class of compounds that can cause reproductive, endocrine, and immune system disorders. Many also contain phosphoric acid, which is corrosive and irritates eyes, lungs, and skin.

But hey, you don’t have to believe me about any of this — you can ask the best scientific minds in the country. Go to the Household Products Database at the National Institutes of Health (hpd.nlm.nih.gov), and look up two or three of your favorite cleaning products. Or look up an ingredient, like butyl cellosolve (you can do either at this site). Trust me, you’ll be shocked. And then maybe you’ll understand why, when I give demonstrations about the dangers of cleaning products, I dress like the first astronaut. I wear gloves and a mask, and, after two squirts of tub scrubber or oven cleaner, my head is spinning anyway.

I’m actually not an alarmist by nature, but I find it scary that these products, which I used for years and believed were safe, may not be. It’s even scarier to me that my own government’s policy on these potentially toxic products is that they’re basically innocent until proven guilty. The government won’t demand proof of their safety until something goes terribly wrong.

So what should you, or I, or anyone do? Let me suggest something called the “Precautionary Principle.” This isn’t something I made up. Back in 1998, the Science and Environmental Health Network convened a summit of doctors, scientists, and officials to decide what to do when there was uncertainty or disagreement in the scientific community about the safety of some new product or development. When they were done debating, they adopted this principle, and here it is:

"When an activity raises threats of harm to human health or the environment, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause and effect relationships are not fully established scientifically."

Two years later, the European Commission — the governing body for all the nations in the European Union — adopted this principle. Our own government hasn’t.

Your grandmother would say it more simply: Better safe than sorry.

Okay, time to act:

Step One: Grab a large, heavy-duty garbage bag and go from room to room in your home — the kitchen, the bathroom, the basement, anywhere you store things — and stuff every product we’ve just listed, every product that contains the chemicals we’ve just talked about, into the bag. Use gloves. Better yet, tongs. If that’s too big a step, at least get rid of anything that’s marked “Danger” or “Poison” on the label. Please. And while you’re at it, ditch any cleaner that lists chlorine or ammonia as active ingredients. They can be dangerous, too.

Step Two: Call your local sanitation department, tell them what you’ve got, and ask them how to dispose of these products safely. They’re the experts. It will surprise you to learn that they consider many of these products to be hazardous waste and have special collection sites for them. And by the way, if you don’t throw this stuff out — if you simply stash it someplace — that’s not good enough. It will find a way to seep back into your life. You may reach for one of those bottles when you run out of your new safe and green products. Or worse, your children may.

Then, take a deep breath and say good-bye once and for all to your old life. Say hello to your new green self.

Excerpted from “Green Goes With Everything.” Copyright (c) 2008 by Sloan Barnett. Reprinted with permission from Atria Books, a division of Simon and Schuster.

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