How are spring cleaning products hurting the environment, your health?
By Chaffin Mitchell, AccuWeather staff writer
Toxic chemicals from your spring cleaning products could end up in the water you drink.
Cleaning products are crucial for maintaining clean conditions in your home and workplace, but the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reports some cleaning products contain chemicals associated with eye, skin, or respiratory irritation and other human health issues.
Experts say cleaning products affect both our health and our environment.
"Cleaning products have the capacity to hurt the environment in several ways, and their impact depends on the chemicals present. In the indoor environment, they can expose people to toxic chemicals when they touch the skin (dermal absorption) or become airborne and are breathed in," Executive Director for Clean and Healthy New York Kathleen Curtis said.
People who clean for a living, where cleaning products are frequently used, are exposed more, and Curtis said research has shown frequent use of cleaning products increases long-term respiratory system harm.
"Cleaning products also have significant effects on our environment, for two main reasons. One, they often contain solvents that are volatile organic compounds which gas off into our air, creating air pollution. Second, they affect our water because most cleaning products are used with water and when used as intended are going to go down the drain," Director of Science and Research for Women’s Voices for the Earth Alexandra Scranton said.
Experts say some cleaning chemicals can, and often do, get past wastewater treatment plants and end up polluting our lakes, rivers and drinking water.
"The outdoor environment is harmed when cleaners that contain toxic chemicals are invariably washed down the drain and enter water bodies. This may result in harm to the plants and animals living in the water (aquatic ecotoxicity). These chemicals can build up in the bodies of these plants and animals, and get concentrated in the bodies of larger animals that eat them (bioaccumulation), including humans," Curtis said.
According to Curtis, since some of these chemicals are entering our waterways every day, and do not break down easily or quickly in the environment, they can build up and contamination levels may be increasing. Those chemicals are known as PBTs, or those that are persistent, bioaccumulative, and toxic.
Scranton said there is no federal requirement that cleaning product manufacturers disclose the ingredients in their products. Unlike cosmetics or food, you rarely find the ingredients of cleaning products on the label.
"It is not easy to identify which cleaning products contain the most harmful chemicals at this time, as neither New York's or California's disclosure laws have gone into effect. Product makers that do not fully disclose ingredients make people wonder whether or not they're hiding toxic chemicals. Terms like 'natural' have no legal meaning and do not necessarily guarantee a safer product. We encourage people to use simple cleaning methods whenever possible: disinfectant chemicals are seldom needed in the home to prevent the spread of germs," Curtis said.
Experts say to avoid problem chemicals, it may be wise to choose fragrance-free cleaning products. Recent data found that over one-third of the chemicals used to make fragrance have been flagged as toxic or potentially toxic – and most common fragrance ingredients are not disclosed either.
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Some of the worst chemicals are Nonylphenol ethoxylates (Nonylphenol NP), Quaternary ammonium chlorides (quats), and Galaxolide.
"Nonylphenol is lethal to fish and other aquatic organisms at extremely low concentrations. Many nonylphenol ethoxylates and alkylphenol ethoxylates degrade into Nonylphenol. These chemicals are getting phased out of detergents (like laundry detergents) overtime but are still showing up regularly in wastewater," Scranton said.
These potent disinfectant chemicals are also commonly found in our environment (waterways, soil, etc).
"Quaternary ammonium chlorides (quats) are a significant problem. These are EPA-registered pesticides found in many cleaning products branded as 'antibacterial,' such as Lysol & Clorox. One of the problems is that once they have done the intended job of killing bacteria on a surface in your house, they go down the drain ending up in our environment where they don’t degrade easily and are still potent antibacterials," Scranton said.
"Another example is Galaxolide, a persistent and toxic fragrance ingredient commonly used in cleaning products that is ending up in our water," Scranton said.
Scranton said people should ask what are the unintended consequences of using toxic cleaners. What important and healthy microbes are they killing outside of your kitchen? How are they adversely affecting ecosystems when products flow down the drain?
"Think carefully before you disinfect…do you really need to? Don’t use antibacterial cleaners for everyday removal of dust/dirt. It's overkill if you are just cleaning up spilled juice for example. They are really bad news for pets who can get sick from exposure as well," Scranton said.
"It's easy to make lots of different cleaners, using inexpensive base ingredients like vinegar, glycerine, lemon, and baking soda. Soap and water, or vinegar and water can be very effective at removing and breaking down germs and removing dirt," Curtis said.
Adding a little vinegar to your homemade cleaner adds some grease-cutting power, while baking soda is a great mild abrasive.
If you don't want to make your own, buying cleaners such as laundry detergent and dish soap in bulk can save more money.
Safer, nontoxic cleaning products are not as expensive as they once were.
"Because of consumer demand, prices have come down as companies compete and reach an economy of scale," Curtis said.
When buying a cleaning product, look for certification programs and eco labels like Green Seal and Safer Choice, which test to independent, third-party standards. Look for products labeled as "fragrance-free" (not just "unscented"). On-pack labeling or website disclosure of ingredients by certain brands like Seventh Generation or Ecover also provide consumers with the ability to make better choices.
Experts say there is very little difference between cleaning products when it comes down to it. Water is often doing the biggest job in a product.
"The data on the effectiveness of antibacterial products to protect your health at home is scarce. No one has been able to prove that you or your family will get less sick when using antibacterial cleaning products than if you use just regular soap and water," Scranton said.
The best way to avoid getting sick is washing your hands regularly and thoroughly.
"Many studies show that washing your hands really works. Most of the time antibacterial cleaners are overkill and could actually be harming your health and the environment rather than helping either," Scranton said.
If you want to check out your own products and look for better alternatives the EWG Guide to Healthy Cleaning can give you ratings on cleaning products.
Also the EPA has a list of Safer Choice products that have been screened for toxic chemicals according to their safety criteria.
For more safety and preparedness tips, visit AccuWeather.com/Ready.
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