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How to Keep Your Home Clean, But Not Toxic

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woman mother toddler baby Be it at home or at nursery school, both parents and childcare providers struggle to win the infectious disease battle, or at least declare a truce, through regular use of powerful cleaning and disinfecting agents. While these cleaners may protect your child by defeating the germs, they may also pose potential health risks due to the sometimes toxic ingredients they contain. And while you cannot control the toxins that permeate public facilities, you do have a say in the how you choose to keep your own home clean.

Potential Health Risks of Common Cleaners

Keeping a clean house is a necessary step in providing a safe living environment. Through proper cleaning and disinfection in the kitchen, for example, contact with disease-causing bacteria from raw or undercooked meat, shellfish, fish, and eggs can be reduced. But the products we use to clean the house can also have unintended health consequences.

Some research regarding the health risks of cleaning products has focused on adult janitorial staff working with industrial cleaners in settings outside of the home. This is because they tend to use more powerful and concentrated cleaning products daily. While household cleaners tend to be more dilute and less potent than their industrial-strength counterparts, many do contain some of the same potentially harmful ingredients. And while both children and adults are susceptible to the consequences of toxic chemical exposure, children are more susceptible because of their rapidly growing bodies and immature immune systems.

Some chemicals that may be a concern include:

  • Ammonia
  • Aerosol propellants
  • Chlorine bleach
  • Hydrochloric acid
  • Hydrofluoric acid
  • Isopropyl alcohol
  • Paradichlorobenzenes (PDCBs)
  • Petroleum distillates
  • Phenols
  • Trichloroethylene (TCE)
  • Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) like:
    • Nitrobenzene
    • Toluene
    • Methylene
    • Chloride
    • Formaldehyde
    • Ethylene glycol

These compounds can be found in floor and carpet cleaners, degreasers, toilet/tub/tile cleaners, room deodorizers, oven cleaners, furniture polishes and waxes, laundry detergents, and disinfectants.

What Can You Do?

The good news is that safer cleaning products are available, and you can also employ safer cleaning techniques to protect yourself, your family, even your pets. To start, be sure to read all labels well. Do not assume a green bottle labeled “natural” is toxin-free. Also consider the following pointers to avoid purchasing toxic cleaners:

  • Consider products with:
    • Citrus or plant-based oils: orange and lemon for degreasing, tea tree and eucalyptus for disinfecting, and olive for polishing
    • Enzymes to break up drain clogs
  • Choose products that list ALL of their ingredients.
  • Make your own cleaning products from non-toxic ingredients such as baking soda, club soda, and white vinegar.
  • Focus on cleaning; disinfect only when necessary. Good cleaning habits will mean you won't need to disinfect nearly as often.
  • Do not use chemical carpet cleaners.
  • Use chlorine bleach sparingly. Consider using fragrance-free, non-chlorine bleaches containing hydrogen peroxide instead.
  • Choose unscented cleaning products. Sometimes fragrances are added to mask the smell of toxic cleaners. Furthermore, fragrances themselves can trigger allergic reactions and asthma attacks.
  • Be wary of concentrated cleaners that advertise safety only when used under certain conditions.
  • Avoid cleaners carrying a "danger" or "warning" label.

Manufacturers of cleaning products are required to prepare a Material Safety Data Sheet containing information about a product’s health, fire, reactivity, and specific hazards, from a score of 0 (minimum) to 4 (severe) in each category. For household cleaning products, avoid any product with a score higher than 2 in any category. Visit the US Department of Health and Human Services Household Products Database website to find this and other helpful information on household cleaners.

  • Environmental Protection Agency

    http://www.epa.gov

  • Healthy Child, Healthy World

    http://healthychild.org

  • Health Canada

    http://www.hc-sc.gc.ca

  • Public Health Agency of Canada

    http://www.phac-aspc.gc.ca

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  • Easy Steps: Chemical. Healthy Child, Healthy World website. Available at: http://healthychild.org/easy-steps/chemical. Accessed November 8, 2013.

  • Green spring cleaning: 9 DIY recipes for natural cleaners. Healthy Child, Healthy World website. Available at: http://healthychild.org/easy-steps/green-spring-cleaning-9-diy-recipes-for-natural-cleaners. Updated April 1, 2013. Accessed November 8, 2013.

  • Maitre A et al. Systemic sclerosis and occupational risk factors: role of solvents and cleaning products. J Rheumatol. 2004;31(12):2395-401.

  • Medina-Ramon M, et al. Asthma, chronic bronchitis, and exposure to irritant agents in occupational domestic cleaning: a nested case-control study. Occup Environ Med. 2005;62(9):598-606.

  • Rudel R et al. Phthalates, Alkylphenols, Pesticides, Polybrominated Diphenyl Ethers, and Other Endocrine-Disrupting Compounds in Indoor Air and Dust. Environ Sci Technol 2003; 37 (20), 4543-4553.

  • Rumchev K, et al. Association of domestic exposure to volatile organic compounds with asthma in young children. Thorax. 2004;59:746-751

  • Sure, your home is clean, but is it safe for your family? Environmental Protection Agency website. Available at: http://www.epa.gov/wastes/conserve/materials/pubs/hhw-safe.htm. Published October 2006. Accessed November 8, 2013.