How Toxic Are Your Household Cleaners?


Toxic substances can be found all over cleaning products, in fact, that's how many of them work. While manufacturers argue that small amounts of these toxic ingredients do no harm, others are worried about the risks of regular exposure over time. The Environmental Working Group (EWG) in the United States has raised concerns about "body burden", suggesting that repeated chemical exposure adds to the body’s toxic burden and creates potential problems down the road.

“Our concern is daily, weekly, chronic exposure over a lifetime. Maybe if you’re exposed to a chemical a handful of times it wouldn’t cause harm, but some chemicals build up enough or cause enough harm in your body over time that it triggers some kind of disease outcome. The concept [of body burden] is that pollution is not just in our air and in our water - it’s also in us.” said Rebecca Sutton, PhD, a senior scientist at the EWG.

The typical household contains roughly 62 toxic chemicals, with some products known to cause an immediate reaction from acute exposure and others known to build up in the body over time. Triclosan is one common ingredient in household dishwashing detergents and hand soaps, with this ingredient found in most products labelled "antibacterial". While the American Medical Association has found no evidence that antimicrobials make us healthier or safer in any way, they can promote the growth of drug-resistant bacteria, may disrupt endocrine function, and are a probable carcinogen.

Quarternary ammonium compounds are another worrying ingredient found in cleaners labelled “antibacterial”, including many fabric softener liquids. Not only is this ingredient a common cause of dermatitis, it's also suspected to cause respiratory disorders and asthma. Phthalates, found in fragrance products such as air fresheners and soap, are endocrine disruptors known to reduce sperm counts in men. Despite the prevalence of phthalates and the damage they're known to cause, companies don’t even have to disclose what’s in their scents, simply listing the word “fragrance” in labels.

Other cleaning products that may cause harm include perchloroethylene from carpet and dry cleaning products, 2-butoxyethanol from window and kitchen cleaners, and ammonia from polishers. While the jury is still out on many of these products, an increasing number of people are choosing to play it safe and use natural cleaning materials instead. There's very little you can't clean using a combination of vinegar, baking soda, and elbow grease, with natural products always providing a safer and more affordable solution.

Image source: antonioscarpi/