It’s hard to imagine that a product intended to keep your home cleaner and your family healthier could be toxic, but that is exactly the case when it comes to cleaning products. Not only are they laced with dozens of toxic chemicals, their disposable plastic containers end up buried in landfills and slowly decomposing in the ocean for hundreds, if not thousands of years. Furthermore, the compounds in the products pollute our air and waterways, leading to dead zones and an increase in smog.
The dead zones are as tragic as they sound. They are areas wherein little to no life can survive due to an excess of certain chemical compounds and/or Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs). The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has listed phosphorous, nitrogen, ammonia, and VOCs as the worst environmental hazards in household cleaning supplies which contribute to smog, the reduction in drinking water quality and are highly toxic to animals (humans included) when consumed. These compounds also contaminate watersheds as they are rinsed down drains and are sadly not removed in the water-treatment process. Thus, leading to an accumulation of elements and chemical concoctions that act as somewhat of a chemical fertilizer. This allows for certain plants (such as algae) to grow rapidly and overtake entire habitats. By the end of this chemical-accelerated growth cycle, the plants die in large concentrations. Once they begin decaying, they deplete the oxygen in the water, algae grows, and then animals begin to die off as well, causing more decay. Shortly after, the water is no longer suitable for drinking, cooking or bathing and becomes a deadzone. Aside from water pollution, VOCs also have the capacity to cause health issues; so much so that the state of California’s Air Resources Board has determined “acceptable” limits for these chemicals.
The effects of such toxic chemicals on humans can be devastating. The top eight most dangerous ingredients in cleaning products are as follows: Phthalates, Perchloroethylene (“Perc”), Triclosan, Quaternary Ammonium Compounds (“Quats”), 2-Butoxyethanol, Ammonia, Chlorine, and Sodium Hydroxide.
- Phthalates are found in a multitude of fragranced household products (ie air fresheners, scented trash bags, dish soap, toilet paper, etc). Since companies are not legally required to disclose what their scents are made of, you’ll probably never see phthalates in the ingredients section; However, anything labeled as “fragranced” is likely to contain them and should be avoided as they are known endocrine disruptors. Exposure is most common through inhalation, but it is also possible for the skin to absorb the toxins, in which case they can be absorbed directly into organs.
- Perc is a neurotoxin found in dry-cleaning solutions, spot removers, and carpet/upholstery cleaners. The EPA has classified it as a “possible carcinogen” and has ordered a phase-out of perc machines in residential buildings due to its suspected health risks. Similar to phthalates, people are most often exposed through inhalation. You know the smell of fresh dry-cleaning or recently-cleaned carpets? Yeah. You’re breathing perc in.
- Triclosan is an antibacterial agent capable of promoting the growth of drug-resistant bacteria. It can be found in most liquid dish detergents and antibacterial soaps. Rebecca Sutton, PhD and senior scientist at the Environmental Working Group, has admit that “The American Medical Association has found no evidence that these antimicrobials make us healthier or safer, and they’re particularly concerned because they don’t want us overusing antibacterial chemicals — that’s how microbes develop resistance, and not just to these [household antibacterials], but also to real antibiotics that we need.”
- Quats are found in fabric softeners and most antibacterial household cleaners. They are similar to triclosan in that they aid in the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria and act as a skin irritant. It has also been suspected to cause respiratory disorders.
- 2-Butoxyethanol is a key ingredient in window, kitchen, and multipurpose cleaners. Current laws do not require the disclosure of this ingredient in products either, even though the World Health Organization has reported that when inhaled at high levels it has been shown to contribute to sore throats, narcosis, pulmonary edema (excess fluid in the lungs), and severe kidney/liver damage.
- Ammonia can easily be found in polishing agents and glass cleaner, due to its ability to leave surfaces streak-free. Nonetheless, Donna Kasuska, a chemical engineer and president of ChemConscious, Inc, warns that “Ammonia is a powerful irritant. It’s going to affect you right away. The people who will be really affected are those who have asthma and elderly people with lung issues and breathing problems. It’s almost always inhaled. People who get a lot of ammonia exposure, like housekeepers, will often develop chronic bronchitis and asthma.” Ammonia can even create a poisonous gas when combined with bleach.
- Chlorine is contained in dozens of cleaning products including scouring powders, toilet bowl cleaners, mildew removers, and laundry whiteners. Like the other chemicals, you can be exposed to chlorine through inhalation or contact with skin while cleaning. The associated health risks include respiratory irritation and potential for serious thyroid disruption.
- Lastly, we have sodium hydroxide which is in oven cleaners and drain openers, because of its extreme corrosiveness. If it comes in contact with your skin, eyes, or respiratory system, it can cause severe burns and/or a sore throat lasting for days.
So, the question remains: if they really are this toxic for us, our kids, and our pets, then why on earth are we using still using chemical-based cleaning supplies when there are other options? There are hundreds of DIY recipes for kid-approved, pet-safe, non-toxic, cleaning concoctions that are significantly cheaper, equally as effective, easy to make, and customizable! Not to mention you can reuse spray bottles and mason jars every time you need new cleaning supplies, reducing the amount of plastic in our landfills and ocean.
According to the most recent survey of consumer expenditures conducted by The Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. households spent an average of $645 on housekeeping supplies in 2013. By purchasing ingredients to make your own supplies in bulk, you save money when it comes to the product and its packaging. To get started, collect the following items from around your home:
- Baking soda
- White vinegar
- Dish soap
- Hydrogen peroxide
- Essential oils
- Castile Soap
- Spray bottles, mason jars, squeeze bottles, labels (optional)
If you’re missing anything from the list, you can buy them directly from this Amazon shopping list that I created or from most dollar stores. Try your hand at making these five tried-and-true cleaning mixtures shown in this video or browse “100 DIY Household Cleaner Recipes That WIll Save You Money”. The total cost of about a year’s supply of these products should cost no more than $150- and that’s if you’re not trying very hard to find deals or bulk items. Based off the Bureau of Labor Statistics and my personal shopping research, I would estimate that you could save almost $500 a year by making your own cleaning supplies! So what are you waiting for? Go start saving!