Household cleaners: cleanliness is next to hazardous?

That household cleaner you stock in your cupboard promises to be tough on dirt.  But have you ever wondered if it’s also tough on you?  A number of unhealthy chemicals are involved in making your clean really squeaky:

Monoethanolamine  is a surfactant found in some all-purpose cleaners and floor cleaners which may irritate the mucous membranes (eye, nose, throat, lungs) causing cough, shortness of breath, and wheezing with prolonged or repeated exposure.

Ammonium quaternary compounds – disinfectants which are found in some household cleaning sprays and toilet cleaners – have been identified as causes of occupational asthma (asthma that occurs in the workplace.)

Alkylphenolethoxylates  (APES) such as nonylphenol ethoxylates and octylphenol ethoxylates  are detergents found in stain removers and all-purpose cleaners which have been found  in lab testing to stimulate the growth of human breast cancer cells.  They’re also tough on the environment: APEs are commonly detected in rivers and streams and have been found to reduce embryo survival in fish, and to alter tadpole development.

Phthalates, which act as carriers for fragrance in many cleaners and household products, have been linked to genital birth defects in male children, reduced sperm count in adult men, and increased allergic symptoms and asthma.

How can you avoid these chemicals?
Unfortunately, reading labels won’t always help. Manufacturers are required to list only the ingredients that are active disinfectants or known to be flammable or explosive. Also, the labels “green,” “nontoxic,” and “natural” are not regulated.  A recent study(1)  found that “green” fragrance products had as many hazardous chemicals as regular products. There are some independent certifications, such as Green Seal, whose standards are posted online. Natural Resources Defense Council  has a useful webpage  that assesses  the reliability of the environmental claims of various “green” label terms.

Simple solutions like white vinegar in water can be an effective all-purpose cleaner and stain-remover, and both Borax and baking soda make great scrubbing agents. For many people, the kitchen and bathroom are areas they want bacteria-free.   Studies have shown that for most surfaces simple cleaning with water and a detergent (like vinegar) will do.  Even food-prep surfaces such as cutting boards have been shown to become just as bacteria free using plain soap, water and copious rinsing as using antibacterial soaps . Also, research has shown that the anti-bacterial benefits from using a disinfectant (a product that kills bacteria) are relatively short-lived—only a few hours–which underscores the importance of targeting their use to specific situations.  Beumer et al (2) suggest the use of chemical disinfectants  in the following situations:

1.    When preparing raw, potentially  contaminated food in the kitchen
2.    If it’s not possible to rinse the surfaces to remove microbes
3.    If it is likely that microbes are strongly attached to surfaces  such as cleaning cloths or sponges
4.    When someone in the home is sick with an infection or has a problem with their immune system.

So, while you may need disinfectants in some instances, you can minimize your exposure to hazardous chemicals by using disinfectants such as bleach or quaternary ammonium compounds only in a few specific situations.  Remember: A bacteria-free house is not the goal. A healthy house is.

Of course, the most important thing you can do to protect your kids, whatever cleaners you choose, is to store them safely out of reach of little ones.  An estimated 267,269 children under age 5 were treated in US emergency departments for household cleaning product-related injuries in 2010.  Keeping products  in their original containers or at least in clearly-labeled containers that don’t look like familiar foods or drinks; storing poisonous substances in locked cabinets out of sight and reach of children; buying products with child-resistant packaging; and properly disposing of leftover or unused products are important steps to keep yourself and your children safe and healthy.

This post was written by Dr. Molly Tran, Occupational and Environmental Medicine resident, Univ. of Illinois at Chicago

1.    Steinemann AC, MacGregor IM, Gordon SM, Gallagher LG, Davis AL, Ribeiro DS, and Wallace LA. Fragranced Consumer Products: Chemicals Emitted, Ingredients Unlisted. Environmental Impact Assessment Review, 2010; DOI: 10.1016/j.eiar.2010.08.002

2.    Beumer R, Bloomfield SF, Exner M, Fara GM, Nath  KJ, Scott E. Hygiene Procedures in the Home and Their Effectiveness: A Review of the Scientific Evidence Base.  International Scientific Forum on Home Hygiene. June 2008

Other sources:

Larson E et al.  “Effect of Antibacterial Home Cleaning and Handwashing Products on Infectious Disease Symptoms: A Randomized, Double-Blind Trial.” Ann Intern Med. 2 March 2004;140(5):321-329

Rutala WA et al.  “Antimicrobial Activity of Home Disinfectants and Natural Products Against Potential Human Pathogens”  Infection Control and Hospital Epidemiology. January 2001.  21(1): 33


2 thoughts on “Household cleaners: cleanliness is next to hazardous?

  1. Thank you for this very helpful post! I don’t have young children in my house anymore but it’s still good to be reminded of the potential harms inherent in having poisonous cleaning products around at all! And i appreciate your helpful suggestions about less toxic ways to keep the house clean.

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