Do we Need to Make Cleaning Eco Friendly?
I am sure many people full of good intentions buy the odd green cleaning product to ‘help the environment’. Some want to reduce the risk of exposure to toxins their family encounters at home. But, before we start replacing a specific chemical cleaner with a green cleaning product we need to see if it is worth making the switch.
Some of the chemical cleaners in our homes may not be so dangerous anyway, so it makes sense to look at the worst offenders first. Start with the most toxic, dangerous or polluting chemical cleaners, and swap those for a green cleaning product first. That way your change has the biggest and quickest impact on the health of your family and the planet.
So, what are the chemicals in conventional cleaners we should try to avoid?
Alcohol of various types is found in a wide range of chemical cleaners including all-purpose cleaners, disinfectants, glass cleaners, metal polishes, air-fresheners and degreasers.
The various types of alcohol often found in household cleaners are:
All alcohol is poisonous. Ingestion or inhalation can cause headaches, nausea, vomiting, dizziness, depression, and stomach pain. Ingestion in large amounts could lead to blindness and even death. Long term exposure may be related to sinus and throat cancers.
Found in all-purpose cleaners, disinfectants drain cleaner, floor cleaners, furniture polish, kitchen cleaner, metal polish, oven cleaner and toilet bowl cleaner.
Ammonia is a powerful irritant for eyes, nose and lungs. For some, ammonia will cause rashes and even burns. When mixed with bleach, chloramine gas is produced which is highly poisonous to breathe.
Found in bathroom cleaners, disinfectants, laundry bleaches, tile cleaners and toilet bowl cleaners.
The names to look out for are:
- Chlorine Bleach
- Sodium Hypochlorite
This is one of the most common causes of poisoning at home. Bleach is a skin irritant and when ingested may damage the mouth, food pipe and stomach. Mixed with acids, bleach will form poisonous chlorine gas and mixed with ammonia, toxic chloramine gas.
Found in degreasers, heavy-duty all-purpose cleaners and window cleaners. When absorbed into the bloodstream this can damage blood, liver, kidneys and the central nervous system. The main problem with this as an ingredient in household cleaners is that it is easily absorbed into your system through the skin.
Carbolic Acid (Phenol)
Found in air fresheners, disinfectants and furniture polish. This is a probable carcinogen. Spilt on skin carbolic acid can cause swelling, burns and hives. Ingestion can result in convulsions and even death. Even low concentrations can cause gangrene, burns and loss of feeling.
Found in detergents, disinfectants and herbicides. Some companies, due to its toxicity are slowly discarding this, as an ingredient. Highly caustic, contact with cresol will cause a prickly or intense burning sensation followed by numbness. Cresol poisoning causes diarrhoea, vomiting, headaches and dizziness. It has been linked to liver, kidney and lung damage.
Found in detergents, disinfectants, furniture polish and water softeners. It is likely that your home is polluted with formaldehyde anyway, from the fixtures and fittings rather than just the cleaners you use. Chipboard, plywood, mattresses, foam, plastics and insulation materials often make use of formaldehyde as a preservative. Kitchens, with laminated cupboards and compressed worktops are often the worst polluted regions of our homes.
In lower concentrations formaldehyde is a suspected carcinogen and irritant, causing nausea, headaches irritated eyes and nose. Ingestion can lead to stomach pain, bleeding and even death.
Found in degreasers, dry-cleaning chemicals, dyes, floor cleaners and paints. There is a wide variety of glycols used, some are highly toxic, others relatively non-toxic. Glycols are easily absorbed through the skin, and from breathing vapour via the lungs, into the bloodstream. There they can damage kidney, liver and central nervous system. Many are simple irritants to skin, eyes, nose and throat
Hydrocarbons (Petroleum Distillates)
Found in furniture polish, metal polish, oven cleaner and pesticides. The hydrocarbons range from the decidedly non-toxic such as petroleum jelly, to the pretty toxic skin irritants. All are toxic if ingested. Perhaps the biggest concern is how polluting the petroleum industry is and using hydrocarbons perpetuates this damage being done to the planet.
Hydrochloric and Phosphoric Acids
Found in bathroom cleaners, limescale remover, metal polishes, tile and toilet bowl cleaners. These strong acids can damage your soft tissues. Burns, scarring and even blindness can result from spills and splashes of these acids. The vapour alone is a strong irritant to eyes, nose and throat.
This is a scary one! Found in rust removers and aluminium cleaners. On contact this acid will penetrate skin and tissue until it reaches bone. Most worryingly there is no pain associated with the acid’s penetration so if you do not notice a spill you could be in real trouble.
Lye (Sodium Hydroxide)
Found in drain cleaners, oven cleaners, bathroom cleaners and toilet bowl cleaners. Lye is an extremely caustic base or alkaline material. It can quickly dissolve, skin and soft tissue, so splashes to the eyes can easily cause blindness. Mixed with acids, lye can release harmful vapours and mixed with water will result in boiling temperatures, steam and frequent splashing.
Many drain cleaners are concentrations of 90% or more, lye so must be treated with absolute care.
Found in air fresheners, carpet cleaners, mothballs and toilet bowl cleaners. This is dangerous to breathe, causing headaches, vomiting and excessive sweating. Naphthalene is very toxic to small children, so beware of storing children’s clothes in mothballs which can result in serious poisoning of the infant.
Found in insecticides, mothballs, room deodorisers and toilet fresheners. These are toxic to breathe or ingest and a common eye and nose irritant.
Found in dry-cleaning solutions and spot removers. This is another suspected carcinogen. Exposure causes dizziness, nausea and tremors. Long term exposure can even damage the liver and central nervous system.
Propellants (Propane, Butane & CFCs)
Found in all aerosols including air fresheners and polish. These are relatively safe but can be dangerous when inhaled. And, the whole point of sprays is that they send out easy to breathe, small particles! They are irritating to throat, nose and lungs and can even cause death if inhaled regularly or in excessive amounts (such as done by youngsters as a cheap ‘high’).
Found in metal polish and toilet bowl cleaners. This acid gives of very dangerous fumes. Contact (even in diluted form) can burn skin and soft tissues. Be especially careful of splashes in eyes that could lead to blindness.
Found in metal polishes and spot removers. TCE is carcinogenic and narcotic. It is irritating to eyes and nose, can dry out skin and cause dizziness or even memory loss when inhaled.
Do You Really Need to Worry About all Those Toxic Chemicals?
Many of these chemicals will be found in relatively small quantities in your commercial cleaning products. So, you may think why bother making the switch to a green cleaning product. Well, personally all I have no desire to risk exposure to all those toxic chemicals at all. It is so difficult to tell how toxic a cleaner is alone. Let alone, the difficulty in determining how toxic those cleaners are when mixed with all the other cleaners I would use in one bout of housework!
Also, I know that I never carry out my household chores in the same kind of controlled environment that all the chemicals are tested in. Is my bathroom a well-ventilated space? Well, yes, when the window is open, but what if it’s blowing a gale and I still need to clean the bathroom?
I worry about children and pets getting hold of those toxic chemical cleaners too. Even if they don’t immediately set about devouring the contents, they may well spill those toxic cleaners on things they will damage.
Also, if a chemical is toxic to me, chances are a variety of other people are being exposed to that toxicity to bring that chemical cleaner to my home. I am thinking of those people working to produce and transport those chemicals to the store.
Even, if I know not to ingest a certain substance, there will be small amounts left over which are thrown in the rubbish and eventually hit landfill sites. Those chemicals do not stop being toxic just because they leave our homes. In fact, if something is mildly toxic to us humans, you can bet it is very toxic to some forms of wildlife.
I am not silly enough to think I can live a ‘modern’ life without impacting on the environment. I know some do, but I am happy with my home comforts and bought furnishings. I try not to be too wasteful but I am far from completely self-sufficient. But, by using green cleaning products I can reduce that impact in a very straightforward way.
More selfishly, I feel happier using an Eco cleaning product. I feel less at risk of developing a headache from cleaning the bathroom. That then, makes me feel less at risk of doing myself long-term damage from inhaling all those unknown compounds. If I feel healthier I feel happier and a lot more likely to keep on top of all the cleaning chores!