In a previous post, I wrote about 10 Toxic Personal Care ingredients that should be avoided as much as possible. Today, the focus is on cleaning and common household products, and just as in the personal care post, I’m not writing this to scare you, but to make you aware of what you may be exposed to without knowing it so you can take measures to avoid it.
How many of us have not bought harsh cleaning chemicals, drain cleaners, or even something so seemingly harmless as air fresheners without thinking twice about what’s inside? I know I have; for most of my adult life, I used household cleaners that made my throat burn and eyes tear. But it was what everyone else was using, and you could buy them in a regular grocery store, so they must be ok, right? I thought I was probably overly sensitive as usual. Allergic to everything…
Then, I started reading up on chemicals and toxins and started to question if these things were really safe. Turns out they’re not. I made it a personal goal to exchange all my toxic products for natural, healthy ones, and if I couldn’t find a good replacement, well, I’d just have to go without or find another way to clean. I’m happy to say I was successful (it of course helps enormously that everyone now is so much more aware of these issues – there are even green janitorial supplies these days) and in two coming posts, I will share my favorite green cleaning products for kitchens and bathrooms as well as the rest of the house.
I know I sound like a broken record, but make sure you always read the ingredients on anything you buy, even if it’s a product that claims to be green and natural. Here is a list of 10 ingredients (in alphabetical order) to avoid whenever possible:
A.k.a. p-Chlorophenyl chloride; Benzene, 1,4-dichloro-; Benzene, p-dichloro-; p-Dichlorobenzol; Paradichlorobenzol; Paradichlorobenzene; p-Dichlorobenzene; 4-Dichlorobenzene; 1,4-Dichlorobenzene; Dichlorobenzene.
Can be found in moth balls and crystals, toilet bowl deodorizers and disinfectants, and the Merck Index states: “Vapors may cause irritation to skin, throat, and eyes. Prolonged exposure to high concentration may cause weakness, dizziness, loss of weight, liver injury may develop.” The U.S. Department of Health & Human Services calls it “reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen” and there are plenty of case studies that makes you think twice about using moth balls. Here are two:
“The lenses of a twenty-seven year old woman became completely cataractous 12-14 months after an attack of hepatic enlargement, jaundice, and loss of weight which was ascribed to excessive exposure to vapors of para-dichlorobenzene in her home; the exposure had been discontinued for one year before development of cataracts.”
“A second woman, aged twenty-five, had monocular, immature, anterior peripheral cortical cataract with a history of jaundice and weight loss six months earlier; it was suspected that she had been poisoned by vapors from 2 cans of para-dichlorobenzene which were kept in a closet in which in the previous year the patient spent considerable time sewing.” [Grant, W.M. Toxicology of the Eye. 3rd ed. Springfield, IL: Charles C. Thomas Publisher, 1986., p. 321]
Derived from petroleum, and also known as APEs, these surfactants (a substance that helps dissolve grease and stains and keeps them suspended in the water instead of being re-deposited on the item) are found in many liquid laundry detergents, disinfectants, household cleaners, contraceptives (spermicide), pesticides, shampoos and conditioners. APEs are hormone disruptors (they mimic estrogen) and do not break down easily in the environment. One APE in particular, p-nonylphenol, caused estrogen-sensitive breast cancer cells to multiply in a test tube study. Look for products with surfactants made from corn, coconut, and soy instead.
Ammonia, a colorless gas composed of nitrogen and hydrogen, can be found in many de-greasers and cleaners, especially those intended for glass and stainless steel, and ovens. In household cleaners, it is usually mixed with water and listed as ammonium hydroxide. Not just horrible-smelling, ammonia irritates the mucous membranes and skin. If accidently mixed with bleach, you end up with a poisonous gas. And ammonia is also thought to contribute to asthma.
Used to purify swimming pools and our drinking water, chlorine can also be found in many household cleaners (disinfectants and toilet bowl cleaners in particular), automatic dishwashing detergents, laundry detergents, bleach, and in paper products bleached using chlorine. According to the EPA, using bleached coffee filters can result in a lifetime exposure to dioxin that “exceeds acceptable levels”.
It is often listed as hypochlorite or sodium hypochlorite. It is a toxic gas (used in chemical warfare during WWI), and studies in Europe suggest that children who start swimming in chlorinated pools before the age of 2 may have an increased risk of a common infant lung infection, and possibly asthma and respiratory allergies later in life.
Other studies have found that acute exposure to low levels of chlorine results in eye, nose, and throat irritation, sneezing, excessive salivation, general excitement, and restlessness. Higher concentrations causes difficulty in breathing, violent coughing, nausea, vomiting, cyanosis, dizziness, headache, choking, laryngeal edema, acute tracheobronchitis, chemical pneumonia. Contact with the liquid can result in frostbite burns of the skin and eyes [Genium 1992].
Chronic exposure to low levels of chlorine gas can result in a dermatitis known as chloracne, tooth enamel corrosion, coughing, severe chest pain, sore throat, hemoptysis and increased susceptibility to tuberculosis [Genium 1992].
Dichloromethane (a.k.a. DCM or methylene chloride) is a solvent found in adhesives, cleaning solutions, paint, furniture polish, paint strippers, degreasers and wood sealants. It is also used in one of the methods to decaffeinate coffee and tea (!).
It enters the body when you breathe in the vapors, and has been linked to cancer of the liver, pancreas and lungs in lab animals. The Department of Health and Human Services has determined that methylene chloride “may reasonably be anticipated to be a cancer-causing chemical”. The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) has classified methylene chloride as “possibly causing cancer in humans”. The EPA has determined that methylene chloride is a probable cancer causing agent in humans.
One of the more common indoor air pollutants, formaldehyde is used in many glues, soaps, insulation, building materials, fertilizers, pet shampoos, facial tissue, paper napkins, paper towels, vaccines (as a preservative), clothes (to add permanent-press qualities), and more.
It can cause allergies, cancer, and contribute to asthma. The US Department of Health & Human Services states: “Formaldehyde is carcinogenic to humans (Group 1).” If a household or body care product contains formaldehyde, you will find it listed on the label.
2-Butoxyethanol or EGBE (also known as butyl cellosolve, butyl glycol, Dowanol, Bane-Clene and ethylene glycol monobutyl ether) is a solvent is found in many household cleaners, especially those intended for glass. It is also often an ingredient in paints, inks, oven cleaners, spot removers, dry cleaning solutions, carpet cleaners, liquid soaps, room and toilet bowl fresheners, and herbicides. Many glycol ethers have almost no smell and you can be overexposed to them without knowing it (the skin can absorb the vapors from the air).
Glycol ethers have been linked to reduced fertility (both in men and women), anemia, chronic fatigue syndrome, autism, liver and kidney damage, and more. How do you avoid it? It’s difficult, since manufacturers aren’t required to list it on the label, but according to Women’s Voices for the Earth, these products contain EGBE: Lemon Fresh Pine-Sol, Windex Aerosol, Formula 409, Simple Green, and All Purpose Cleaner.
A petroleum distillate used in shoe polish, oil paint, moth balls, glass cleaners, and floor and furniture polish. Naptha can cause nausea, headaches, and central nervous system symptoms. California’s Office of Environmental Health Hazards Assessment calls it a substance “known to the state to cause cancer.” The MSDS for Naptha states: “The substance is toxic to skin, eyes, CNS. May be toxic to blood, kidneys, lungs, nervous system, mucous membranes, gastrointestinal tract, upper respitory tract, ears. Wear suitable protective clothing. In case of insufficient ventilation, wear suitable respiratory equipment”.
Synthetic fragrances are everywhere; in household products, body care products, candles, scented trash bags, drawer liners, the list goes on. They are composed of hundreds if not thousands of ingredients that companies are not required to list individually on the label – “fragrance” is enough. Phthalates, a substance we now all know to avoid in plastics, is usually one of those ingredients. It is a hormone disruptor, and according to the U.S. Center for Disease Control, some studies link phthalates to liver cancer. The best approach is to avoid using anything that says “synthetic fragrance” or “fragrance” and instead look for products containing organic essential oils. Or buy unscented products.
Triethanolamine (TEA), Monoethanolamine (MEA) & Diethanolamine (DEA)
Solvents, emulsifiers and wetting agents found in body products (in lots of hair colors), laundry detergents, degreasers, household cleaners, oven cleaners, mold and mildew cleaners.
TEA has been found to cause allergy, contact dermatitis, and eczema.
MEA is described by the National Fire Protection Association as “Corrosive. Causes severe eye and skin burns. May be harmful if absorbed through skin or inhaled. Irritating to skin, eyes, respiratory system.”
DEA is a skin irritant and the following statement can be found in Ethyl Browning’s Toxicity and Metabolism of Industrial Solvents 2nd ed Vol II: Nitrogen and Phosphorus Solvents “diethanolamine should not be used in products containing N-nitrosating agents, since it may be nitrosated to form N-nitrosodiethanolamine, a liver and nasal cavity carcinogen.”
Read more about these last four (and what to avoid in body care products) in my “10 Toxic Personal Care Ingredients” post.