How Toxic Cleaning Products Impact the Environment – & Your Health

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Most commonly used household cleaners contain chemicals that are bad for the environment as well as your health. Here’s what to watch out for in these toxic cleaning products – and how you can avoid them.

Did you know that the companies that make the products that you use to clean your home are not required to list all of the ingredients in their products? In fact, in a 2016 study by the Environmental Working Group of over 2,000 commercially available household cleaning products, only 1 in 7 listed all of their ingredients on the label!

Furthermore, EWG stated that “Even when they do list the ingredients, manufacturers often use generic terms like “surfactant,” “colorant,” “preservative” or “fragrance.” These vague terms can mask dozens of compounds, some of which have been linked to serious health impacts.”

Most Americans don’t realize that when you buy most commonly available household cleaning products, you are bringing toxic chemicals into your home. These toxins can accumulate in the dust on your floor, in your carpets, and even in the air in your home. A test of 21 common cleaning products “…found that they emitted more than 450 chemicals into the air, including a number of compounds linked to asthma, developmental and reproductive harm, or cancer.”

There are a number of serious health risks that these toxic cleaning products pose for both children and adults. According to the EWG, “Studies have shown that infants exposed in the womb to cleaning products used by their mothers may suffer lower birth weight, lower IQ, and wheezing and respiratory symptoms that may persist throughout childhood.” (You can read more about the harmful health effects of household cleaning products here.)

And these harmful effects extend to not just humans, but also our surrounding environment and the other creatures that inhabit it:

Many cleaning chemicals are not only harmful to human health, but also put animals and the environment at risk. This includes triclosan, an ingredient approved for use in floor waxes and sealers, as well as many cleaning supplies, like sponges and reusable household wipes. Although the market has started to shift away from using triclosan, the troubling ingredient may still be found in older dishwashing liquids still on store shelves. Triclosan is not fully removed by wastewater treatment and can harm aquatic animals like fish and frogs as it is discharged and persists in waterways. The chemical can also breakdown to form toxic, carcinogenic substances, like dioxins and chloroform. Scientists are also concerned about triclosan’s contribution to growing bacterial resistance.

Besides triclosan, here are a few other ingredients the EWG says to watch out for:

  • Common asthmagens and respiratory irritants in cleaning products include quats, ethanolamines, glutaral and sodium hypochlorite (chlorine bleach).
  • Other ingredients and impurities frequently found in cleaning products have been linked to cancer. All-purpose products and dish and laundry detergents often use ethoxlated surfactants for soil removal. These chemicals may contain carcinogenic impurities, such as 1,4-dioxane and ethylene oxide.
  • Some products contain volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, that can come from botanical oils and extracts.
  • A group of VOCs, called terpenes, can react with ozone indoors to form formaldehyde, a known human carcinogen. Preservatives that release formaldehyde are also commonly added to multi-use products.

But since manufacturers aren’t legally required to list their ingredients on their labels, how can you avoid these toxic cleaning products? You have a few options.

You can make your own household cleaners using safe, cheap, and readily available ingredients (they’re surprisingly easy and effective), or you can use a guide like EWG’s Guide to Healthy Cleaning to find cleaning products that actually disclose all of their ingredients – so you know just what you are bringing into your home.


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