by Susan Hamilton

It's time for spring cleaning. Break out those heavy-duty household cleaning products and get ready to become squeaky clean. But wait ... Did you know that the Spokane Regional Solid Waste System considers household cleaning products hazardous waste? "Many products used in our homes contain hazardous chemicals," its recycling guide states. "The average family has more than 60 hazardous products at home, including such common items as disinfectants, pesticides and toilet cleaners."

How toxic are our homes?

The long-term effects of the chemicals we use in our homes are just beginning to surface. The Consumer Product Safety Commission reports that more than 150 chemicals found in the average home have been linked to allergies, birth defects, cancer and psychological abnormalities. Many of these chemicals were traced to household cleaners.

Chemicals found in common, conventional household cleaning products are not allowed in workplaces, according to Occupational Health and Safety Administration regulations. But why aren't these chemicals regulated in our homes? A 15-year study in Oregon comparing women who didn't work outside the home with women who did, found that there was a 54 percent higher death rate from cancer in women who stayed at home. Chronic exposure to cleaning products played a role, the study suggested. The National Center for Health Statistics agreed. "Household cleaners may contain a number of proven and suspect causes of cancer," it stated.

Toxic materials from cleaning products fill the air inside our homes with hazardous fumes that we may inhale for days after we've used them and leave unhealthy residues on household surfaces. It's no wonder, then, that EPA studies of human exposure to air pollutants indicate that indoor air levels of many pollutants may be two to five times (and occasionally more than 100 times) higher than outdoor levels, regardless of whether homes were located in rural or highly industrial areas. What's causing this indoor pollution? According to the EPA, cleaning and household products are among the many culprits. These toxic materials include chlorine, metal polishes, glass cleaners, disinfectants, furniture and floor polishes, spot removers, carpet cleaners, toilet-bowl cleaners and spray starch. They are known to irritate lungs, eyes, skin, kidneys and liver.

"The three most dangerous cleaning products in the average home are drain cleaners, oven cleaners and acid-based toilet-bowl cleaners," the Washington Toxics Coalition reports. The WTC states that when chlorine (an ingredient found in automatic dishwashing detergent, disinfectants, toilet-bowl cleaners and mildew removers) is mixed with ammonia (found in glass cleaners) or acid-based cleaners (including vinegar), it releases toxic chloramine gas, which can produce asthmatic symptoms or respiratory problems.

Aerosol products, air fresheners, dry-cleaned clothing, paints, varnishes, glues, art supplies, cleaners, spot removers, floor waxes and polishes pollute our indoor air with hazardous volatile organic compounds, the WTC reports. These products can release pollutants while you are using them and, to some degree, when they are stored, according to the EPA. Many of these volatile organic compounds are known to cause cancer in animals and some are suspected of causing cancer in humans.

So what to do if you want to clean your home without harming yourself, family members or the environment?

Safe alternatives

Avoiding unhealthy chemical cleaners isn't as difficult as you might think. Many safe cleaning products are ones our mothers or grandmothers used to keep their homes clean. Others are "green" cleaners available in natural-foods stores and some chain stores. Environmentally friendly cleaners utilize natural, biodegradable materials like vinegar, citrus oils, enzymes and minerals for their cleaning properties. Some renewable-resource cleaners are made from vegetable, coconut or corn oil. They are safe to use and should not cause indoor or outdoor pollution.

Companies that produce environmentally friendly household cleansers include Seventh Generation, Envision, Ecover, Life Tree, OrangeGlo and Bi-O-Kleen. But do they really work? "I just wanted to thank you for your wonderful Natural All-Purpose Cleaner," wrote one Seventh Generation customer. "Not only does it do a better job cleaning than other less environmentally safe products, I personally had no ill effects using it." Conventional cleaners, however, haven't fared well under examination. In a test conducted at the University of Minnesota, Borax beat out Clorox Clean-Up for removing bathroom grime. Consumer Reports found that water alone works better than half the conventional glass cleaners on the market.

How do you evaluate a household cleaner, "green" or otherwise? Look for clearly labeled products with exact ingredients listed. Synthetic ingredients, like petroleum, phosphate and chlorine, shouldn't be part of "green" or "natural" cleaning products. If you see the words poison, caution or danger on a product, look closely to see if it refers to a serious hazard or a simple warning. Evaluate biodegradable claims. You may have to call a manufacturer to get the answers to these questions. They may offer to send you Materials Safety Data Sheets (MSDS) for their product that list detailed information about the specific hazardous ingredients a product contains.

Keeping it green

If you decide to switch from synthetic, chemical cleaners to natural alternatives, don't throw them in the garbage or pour them down the drain. Common items such as disinfectants, toilet cleaners and oil-based paints are considered hazardous waste. Take them to your local hazardous waste collection center to dispose of them.

There are a few precautions you should take if you decide you just can't live without chemical-based household cleaners. Never mix cleaners, because you may create a very hazardous substance. Protect yourself when performing general cleaning by wearing gloves. When using more hazardous products, such as oven cleaners, wear safety goggles and a breathing mask. If this sounds extreme, remember that the government considers these cleaners hazardous waste. Ventilate by opening windows when you clean. Spray cleaners will diffuse their chemicals into the air, so apply these cleaners with sponges or rags instead. Avoid using hot water with these cleaners because doing so allows the volatile chemicals to enter the air in greater amounts. Rinse surfaces thoroughly to remove as much cleaning product residue as possible. Keep synthetic chemical cleaners away from eating areas and places where children play and sleep.

If you want to evaluate your home for environmental toxins, the Children's Health Environmental Coalition (a national, nonprofit, public-education organization) offers information about how to identify and eliminate children's exposure to man-made toxic substances. It has a quiz that provides a personalized assessment of potential toxic exposure in your home with suggestions on how to improve and protect your family's health. (See This Web site will also connect you to articles that can help you make informed decisions about a healthy home environment. n

A good all-purpose cleaner can be made from two tablespoons baking soda and one pint of warm water. Place this in a spray bottle and add a squeeze of lemon juice or vinegar to help cut grease. To clean windows, mix 1/4 cup white vinegar with one quart warm water. Apply with a spray bottle and crumpled newspaper instead of paper towels. For a non-toxic toilet-bowl cleaner, pour one cup of Borax and 1/2 cup white vinegar in the bowl and leave overnight. Flush in the morning. For laundry, add 1/4 cup vinegar to your machine's rinse cycle for softness or 1/2 cup lemon juice for brightness.

Publication date: 05/12/05

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