How Safe Are Your Cleaning Products?
Some household cleaning products can expose unsuspecting users to toxic substances linked to short- and long-term health problems, including asthma, allergic reactions and even cancer.
In an effort to help consumers find safer products, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) has created the first online guide that rates more than 2,000 household cleaners with grades A through F for safety of ingredients and disclosure of contents.
“Keeping your home clean shouldn’t put you and your family at risk, and with EWG’s new online guide you won’t have to,” said Rebecca Sutton, Ph.D, EWG senior scientist. “Quite a few cleaning products that line store shelves are packed with toxic chemicals that can wreak havoc with your health, including many that harm the lungs. The good news is, there are plenty of cleaning products that will get the job done without exposing you to hazardous substances.”
Just seven percent of cleaning products adequately disclosed their contents. To uncover what’s in common household cleaners, EWG’s staff scientists spent 14 months scouring product labels and digging through company websites and technical documents. EWG staff reviewed each ingredient against 15 U.S. and international toxicity databases and numerous scientific and medical journals.
Ingredient labels are mandatory for food, cosmetics and drugs sold in the U.S.–but not for cleaning products. Bowing to pressure from customers and the threat of federal regulation, most companies list at least some ingredients on their labels and websites. A few companies disclose nothing, while others list just one or a few of their ingredients or describe them in vague terms such as “surfactant” and “solvent.”
- Some 53 percent of cleaning products assessed by EWG contain ingredients known to harm the lungs. About 22 percent contain chemicals reported to cause asthma to develop in otherwise healthy individuals.
- Formaldehyde, a known human carcinogen, is sometimes used as a preservative or may be released by other preservatives in cleaning products. It may form when terpenes, found in citrus and pine oil cleaners and in some essential oils used as scents, react with ozone in the air.
- The chemical 1,4-dioxane, a suspected human carcinogen, is a common contaminant of widely-used detergent chemicals.
- Chloroform, a suspected human carcinogen, sometimes escapes in fumes released by products containing chlorine bleach.
- Quaternary ammonium compounds (“quats”) like benzalkonium chloride, found in antibacterial spray cleaners and fabric softeners, can cause asthma.
- Sodium borate, also known as borax, and boric acid are added to many products as cleaning agents, enzyme stabilizers or for other functions. They can disrupt the hormone system.
- Many leading “green” brands sell superior products, among them Green Shield Organic and Whole Foods’ Green Mission brand. But not all cleaners marketed as environmentally conscious score high. Some “green” brands, including Earth Friendly Products and BabyGanics, do not disclose ingredients adequately.
EWG recommends avoiding a few types of products altogether, since they’re unnecessary–or there are no safer alternatives. Among them:
- Air fresheners contain secret fragrance mixtures that can trigger allergies and asthma. Open windows or use fans.
- Antibacterial products can spur development of drug-resistant superbugs.
- Fabric softener and dryer sheet ingredients can cause allergies or asthma and can irritate the lungs. Try a little vinegar in the rinse cycle.
- Caustic drain cleaners and oven cleaners can burn eyes and skin. Use a drain snake or plunger in drains. Try a do-it-yourself paste of baking soda and water in the oven.
The EWG has worked with other organizations devoted to protecting consumers from hazardous ingredients in common household cleaning products. Among them: Women’s Voice for the Earth.
“Women’s Voice for the Earth has been a terrific partner in our efforts to eliminate toxic chemicals from cleaning products, and we applaud its research and advocacy on behalf of human health,” Sutton said.
“There is simply no excuse for companies who hide ingredients and make toxic products,” said Erin Switalski, executive director of Women’s Voices for the Earth. “That’s why we are so pleased that EWG is releasing this new database. This tool will give women the information they need to vote with their pocketbooks until we have regulations in place that assure all products are safe.”
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