I don't remember exactly how old I was, but I remember the day many years ago when I was cleaning the shower in my childhood home (as a teen the bathroom duties were my assignment) and wondered what exactly I was cleaning with. I knew the colors and shapes of the different bottles I grabbed from under the kitchen sink where we stored our arsenal of household cleaning products. I knew their distinct smells (which I had grown up associating with the smell of "clean."), and knew light-headedness was sure to follow. I even knew their individual superpowers (the blue one left the mirrors streak-free, the foamy one made the porcelain glisten). But what were they? What was in them? How did they do what they did?
I pored over the label looking for the list of ingredients and found nothing but a crude list of warnings. Do not take internally. Flammable. Warning. Keep away from children. The last one struck me. I'd been using those products for years to help my mom keep the house clean (getting it dirty was largely my brothers' and my fault). I knew the warning was aimed at preventing small children from drinking the stuff, and I only started using it when I was old enough to know better, but it still seemed counter-intuitive. These products were meant for use all over the house. Every surface and textile was regularly sprayed, wiped, rinsed, or rubbed with one of these chemical concoctions. If they were as toxic as their labels implied, why were we using them where we ate, bathed, slept and played?
At that moment, I began to understand the big picture of chemicals in everyday products and the secrets manufacturers would prefer we didn't know. Secrets of how they get us to shell out billions of dollars annually for products that really don't serve our best interests.
Today, here's what I've learned about the conventional cleaning products most widely used around America, in a nutshell.
1. The ingredients are privileged information.
Sixty-seven percent (67%) of adults believe that companies are required to disclose all of the chemical ingredients contained in their products, which isn't true. Manufacturers are only required to list the ingredients that are active disinfectants (because these are technically pesticides) or known to be acutely hazardous (which to them includes ingredients that cause fires or explosions but not those that cause cancer or developmental diseases).
This policy is due to change in 2010 under the Consumer Product Ingredient Communication Initiative, a voluntary ingredient disclosure program. Still, it will only be voluntary and it will also allow a couple of loopholes (like withholding the chemical makeup of fragrances, dyes and preservatives and omitting ingredients that are "incidental" and not functional to the product).
Still, some manufacturers have already stepped up to the plate to inform curious consumers. Companies that currently profess to disclose their full list of ingredients include Seventh Generation, Ecover, Trader Joe's, and Method.
2. Labels can (and often do) lie.
With awareness about potential health and environmental impacts on the rise, consumers have an increased desire to buy products that are safer. In order to profit from this desire, manufacturers have begun using all sorts of marketing tactics to get us to believe their products are better. Still, when it comes to conventional cleaners, manufacturers can make claims that are neither independently verified nor government regulated. According to Consumer Reports, some of the most common claims include:
- "Nontoxic." This implies that the product will cause no harm to the consumer or environment. However, there is currently no standard definition for the term "nontoxic," and unless otherwise specified, there is no organization independently verifying the claim.
- "Natural". Though widely found on commercial cleaning products, the term "natural" doesn't necessarily mean much. There's no standard definition for this claim in industry, so manufacturers can use it as they please. What's more, just because something is "natural" doesn't mean it's less toxic, or non-irritating. The word "natural" can be applied to just about anything -- including plastic, which comes from naturally occurring petroleum.
- "Environmentally friendly." Again, while this label implies that the product or packaging has some kind of environmental benefit or that it causes no harm to the environment, there is currently no standard definition for term "environmentally friendly." Unless otherwise specified, there is also no organization independently verifying this claim.
Use the Consumer Reports web guide to eco-labels for help discerning fact from fiction.
3. Cleaning with antibacterials does not necessarily protect your health.
Clever ads depict cartoon germs, bacteria and viruses covering common surfaces in our households, just waiting for us to touch them and invite them in for an infection. Unfortunately, desperately attempting to sterilize your home is not only ineffective at protecting your health, it can actually be harmful to our health and the environment. Consider just a few of the facts:
- Antibacterial products target good bacteria as well as bad, but our bodies need those good bacteria. They help us digest our food, for example, and keep harmful microorganisms from entering our bodies through our main orifices like our mouths and nose. Our lives are so intertwined with bacteria that there are at least ten times as many bacteria cells as human cells in the human body.
- The bad bacteria we encounter typically have no impact on a healthy immune system. In fact, only one to two percent of microbes are likely to make us sick.
- A large number of recent studies have found substantial evidence that triclosan (the most commonly used antibacterial) and triclosan-containing products actually promote the emergence of bacteria resistant to antibiotic medications and antibacterial cleansers.
- Triclosan is showing up in the environment, in drinking water, in breast milk, places it obviously doesn't belong. And when it mixes with the chlorine used for cleaning drinking water, it turns into chloroform (a carcinogen that also causes liver and kidney damage).
- Even the American Medical Association concludes, "Despite their recent proliferation in consumer products, the use of antimicrobial agents such as triclosan in consumer products has been studied extensively. No data exist to support their efficacy when used in such products or any need for them. . .it may be prudent to avoid the use of antimicrobial agents in consumer products. . ."
4. Many conventional cleaning products are not safe when used as directed.
The average American home is a danger zone for families with at least 63 toxic chemicals within reach. Many of these are the cleaning products we rely on everyday and they are the second leading cause of childhood poisonings. Manufacturers comfort us by standing by the rules of proper usage - they're safe when used as directed - but I suppose it depends on your definition of safe. Their definition of safe implies a lack of danger during a very small window of time - while you are using the product. According to manufacturers, during this window of time, if you use the product correctly, you will not experience any immediate harm. Or, shall I say, any immediately apparent harm.
My (and many other consumers') definition of safe is much broader. Is it safe for the workers who make it? Is it safe for the developing fetus or baby? Is it safe to be exposed to small amounts of this chemical repeatedly for many years? Is it safe for the ecosystem it eventually ends up washed into? Or Why do some tell me to wear rubber gloves? And vacate the room after use?
Commercially formulated products can contain a host of harsh chemicals, including 1, 4-dioxane and methylene chloride, which are carcinogens, or phosphoric acid, a skin toxicant. Dishwashing detergents often contain phosphates that pollute water; wood polish often contains toxins like nitrobenzene; and laundry detergent may contain bleach and other corrosives. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the air inside the typical home is on average 2-5 times more polluted than the air just outside--and in extreme cases 100 times more contaminated--largely because of household cleaners and pesticides.
Safe? I'm not at all convinced.
5. Simply because a product is for sale and on store shelves, does NOT guarantee a government agency or regulatory body has declared it safe for health and safe for use in your home.
Oddly, even though the majority of adults think the ingredients are listed, more than half (58%) don't always check the labels of cleaning products to determine if they contain ingredients that are harmful to their health. This disconnect is mainly due to people's false assumption that the government is regulating these products. The truth is that the government only regulates the product to the degree that it does what it says it does (e.g. if the product is supposed to whiten something, it whitens it) and not to the degree that it may harm human health or the environment. In fact, our own government regulations are so lax that some cleaning products contain ingredients banned in other countries.
One of the main active ingredients in most cleaning products is called the "surfactant." Surfactants make water wetter (the magic of chemistry). Wetter water spreads easier and wets surfaces better, to make cleaning easier. Most common surfactants [nonylphenol ethoxylate (NPE) and the whole class of alkylphenol ethoxylate surfactants (APEs)] are made from petroleum, a non-renewable resource. NPE and APEs have a laundry list of ill environmental and human health effects so long that use of these chemicals is severely restricted in virtually all western nations except the US. So why do many cleaning product manufacturers in America still insist on using NPE and APEs even though they don't use them in other western countries? Because they do the job and they're cheap.
Now that you know the dirty little secrets of the conventional cleaning industry, what are you going to do? You can buy safer products like those from Seventh Generation, Dapple, or the new Activeion that will transform tap water into a powerful cleaner without any chemicals. Or simply make your own by using simple kitchen ingredients like baking soda and vinegar.
Whatever you decide, consider submitting a short video of yourself (or your kids, or your dog or cat) demonstrating your techniques for our Healthy Begins Here Contest.
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