I’m sorry to break the bad news, but it’s time for spring-cleaning. And that means a lot of consumers will be, rather ironically, bringing toxic-laden cleaning products into their homes. Don’t feel bad! Americans assume such products are safe or they wouldn’t be sold. But the fact is, there are more than 80,000 unregulated and untested chemicals on the market today.
As an example of how pervasive it is for many companies to keep consumers in the dark, the Environmental Working Group’s new Guide to Healthy Cleaning reviewed more than 2,500 cleaning products — more than half of which were rated “poor” on ingredient disclosure. A poor rating means that packages may show only a partial list of ingredients, or none at all. They may also rely on generic terms such as “dyes” and “colorants” rather than chemical names, among other shady practices.
It’s sad, but America’s chemical policy seems to be “it’s safe until someone gets sick or dies.”
These chemicals make their way into everything, from lipstick and shampoo, to toys, furniture, and even the products we use to clean our homes.
The United States as a whole needs to step up its game on chemical regulation. In the meantime, I want to empower you to make informed choices, so here are eight common toxins that may be in the cleaning products under your sink.
(I recommend finding — or making your own — natural cleaning supplies. If you purchase “green” cleaning products, take a few extra seconds and check the ingredients — good marketing does not equal good ingredients. If you go the route of making your own, here are some starter tips from HGTV, Apartment Therapy, and Good Housekeeping.)
1 – Phthalates: If you buy a product that claims to make your home smell nice (think spray air fresheners, but many other regular products, too), there is a good chance it’s made with Phthalates, a group of chemicals that were previously used in baby products like teethers, but six common types were banned for such use in 1999 due to health concerns. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) says Phthalates, which are also prevalent in personal hygiene products like hair spray and deodorant, “may present a risk” because they can disrupt hormone activity, particularly in children and especially young boys.
2 – Formaldehyde: It’s pretty widely known how dangerous Formaldehyde is to human health. It’s so bad for health, in fact, that it is commonly used to embalm the dead. The EPA says it is probably a carcinogen, while the International Agency for Research on Cancer says it is. Yet it’s still being sold unknowingly to consumers in products like liquid soap, fabric softener, and baby wipes. How about that?
3 – 2-Butoxyethanol: That sounds “natural,” right? Commonly found in products like glass cleaners and degreasers, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says 2-Butoxyethanol can cause minor irritations such as irritation to the eyes, or bigger effects like central nervous system depression and blood in the urine. Products like Turtle Wax, Simple Green, and Miniwax are just some that this chemical is found in.
4 – Perchloroethylene: Say that three times fast. Due to use at many industrial sites, this chemical is often found in the air we breathe, and at higher rates in urban and suburban areas. In our homes, we frequently use products that contain it to remove spots on fabric and to clean wood. According to the National Toxicology Program, long-term exposure to Perchloroethylene can damage the central nervous system and cause memory loss and respiratory failure, among other ailments.
5 – Ammonia: Hey, one we can all pronounce! Manufactured frequently for use in fertilizer, ammonia can also occur naturally from the breakdown of plants, animals, and animal waste. Around the house, ammonia is often used in floor waxes and window cleaners. Just because you’re familiar with it doesn’t mean it’s safe. High levels of exposure can cause blindness, lung damage, and seizures. It can also severely burn your skin on contact. Always use with precaution!
6 – Nonylphenol and Alkylphenol Ethoxylates: Yikes! These chemicals are found in many dust control products, as well as “down the drain” products like dish and laundry detergent, which is problematic because they do not biodegrade quickly, contaminating the environment and wildlife. They are also “bioaccumlative,” which means that once they enter a living organism, they continue to accumulate in body tissue for long periods of time. While, like many chemicals, research is limited, studies have found these to be endocrine disruptors, and they can act as an obesity-causing agent. Products made with Nonylphenol also include food packaging, toys, and clothing.
7 – Sodium hydroxide: If you can pronounce it, it must be one of the least harmful, right? Wrong! This chemical is so effective at dissolving flesh that it is often used in the disposal of road kill. If you’ve ever seen Breaking Bad, you get the idea. In addition to making bodies disappear, it also helps to degrease your pots and pans, and clean that pesky oven! The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry notes that the corrosive nature of Sodium hydroxide makes it immediately irritating to the respiratory tract, with swelling or spasms of the larynx possible. It will also corrode any flesh with which it comes into contact.
8 – Isothiazolinone preservatives: These are typically a mix of chemicals found in aerosols, laundry products, washing liquids, and more, where they are used as preservatives. They are also know allergens. Their reaction can be so bad, in fact, that this family of allergens received Allergen of the Year in 2013. Congratulations.
Due to a lack of proper labeling of many products, and how time-consuming and difficult it can be to research everything on the shelves, the Organic Consumers Association offers what they note are imperfect but helpful tips: if the label contains a signal word such as “danger,” “warning,” or “caution,” chances are you don’t want it in your home. Other phrases like “flammable,” “vapors harmful,” and “may burn on contact” are also good to avoid.
Have a safe spring-clean!