Green Guidance

Green Guidance

Spring Cleaning Without the Headache

It's springtime, when some dream of love and others of cleaning house. In both cases, it can be a challenge to find the real thing. Conventional cleaning products, rather than producing pristine homes as advertisements claim, actually leave indoor air polluted with a toxic smog of petrochemical volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and the synthetic fragrances used to mask them. Fumes emitted by everyday household products such as cleansers, cosmetics, and paint are "the same stuff that comes out of a tailpipe or a smokestack," a spokesman for the California Air Resources Board told the Los Angeles Times last spring. Indeed, household products are the second greatest source of outdoor air pollution in the Los Angeles region. Indoors, levels of pollutants can be from two to more than 100 times higher than outside, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Think, then, what damage VOCs in cleaning products, used on a regular basis year-round, can do in the enclosed space of a home, where they can build up for months. "When they evaporate, they are transported directly to the brain, where they can be as intoxicating as ether or chloroform. These are palpably dangerous to health," said Kaye Kilburn, professor of internal medicine at the University of Southern California medical school. In other words, when someone complains of being knocked out after cleaning house, it's likely not just a turn of phrase. Cleaning-product VOCs, many of which are neurotoxins and known or suspected carcinogens and/or hormone disruptors, have been implicated in headaches, dizziness, watery eyes, skin rashes, and respiratory problems. A Spanish study published in November 2003 surveyed over 4,000 women and found that 25 percent of asthma cases in the group were attributable to domestic cleaning work.

This spring, give your house a break. Open windows to let in fresh air, and use nontoxic cleaners. Below are some ingredients to avoid in cleaning products, and some safer, simpler alternatives.

Detergents for dishes, laundry, floors, countertops: Most conventional soaps are made from petroleum, a nonrenewable resource. Some contain alkyphenol ethoxylates (APEs), suspected hormone disruptors that can threaten wildlife after they go down the drain. Inhalation of vapors from butyl cellosolve, used as a solvent to dissolve grease, may irritate the respiratory tract and cause nausea, headaches, dizziness, and unconsciousness. Finally, like an overly perfumed loved one, the synthetic fragrances in these products can make you sneeze and wheeze. "Fragrances are common allergens and repeated exposures can lead to onset of allergies, including symptoms such as skin and respiratory tract irritation, headache, and watery eyes," says Harvey Karp, M.D., a Los Angeles pediatrician and assistant professor of medicine at UCLA. A family of chemicals known as phthalates, used in synthetic fragrances, have been found to produce cancer of the liver and birth defects in lab animals.

Look on labels for safer and more eco-friendly ingredients such as grain alcohol as a solvent, and natural plant oils (olive, palm, pine, coconut, eucalyptus, citrus, peppermint, or lavender) as a soap base. Choose soaps and detergents labeled "fragrance free."

Chlorine bleach (also known as sodium hypochlorite and sodium hydroxide): This common disinfectant, found in liquid bleach, drain cleaners and oven cleaners (combined with caustic lye), can burn skin and eyes and be fatal if swallowed. When it goes down the drain, it can produce organochlorines, which are suspected carcinogens as well as reproductive, neurological, and immune-system toxins.

Instead, use non-chlorine bleaches based on hydrogen peroxide, sodium percarbonate, or sodium perborate. Borax, washing soda, or white vinegar in water can also clean and remove stains. For ovens, coat surfaces in a paste of water and baking or washing soda and let stand overnight, then scrub off while wearing gloves.

Glass and bathroom cleaners: Ammonia, the main ingredient in many window and tub, toilet, and tile cleaners, is caustic and poisonous if ingested-and, if combined with chlorine, present in many scouring products, produces toxic chlorine gas! Instead, use chlorine-free scouring powders or baking soda. For windows and mirrors, mix white vinegar with water.

For obvious reasons, do not dump old cleaning products down the drain. The same goes for pesticides and old paints. Call your local solid-waste agency to find out about safe disposal. And keep all cleaning products, even least-toxic ones, well out of children's reach.


Mindy Pennybacker is editor of Green Guide, published by The Green Guide Institute, which provides the research for this department.