Safe Home-Cleaning Products

A cautionary tale about cleaning house

04-01-2001 // Susan Fay

For years, I scrubbed the shower stalls in my house with commercial cleaners, ignoring the strong odors that filled the air around me. Then one day about a year ago, it got to me. I began coughing uncontrollably and I suddenly realized: Sure, these products do a good job of getting rid of grime, but how toxic are they? And more importantly, what are the potential effects of that toxicity to me and my children?

The American Association of Poison Control Centers ranks household cleaners as the leading source for acute human exposures to toxic substances. Of more than 200,000 accidental cleaning-substance poisonings in 1997, about half were children under the age of six. Fatalities are uncommon, but the chronic long-term effects on people from exposure to some of these products are hard to measure. And people may not be the only potential victims.

In the Pacific Northwest where I live, my neighbors and I now realize that our everyday habits can make a difference in the health of the natural ecosystems around us—including the region’s rivers and streams that endangered or threatened salmon species rely on for spawning. While we cannot say conclusively that the chemicals we use around our homes will wind up polluting our water supplies, I prefer to err on the side of caution.

After the coughing incident, I began reading the labels on the commercial products under my kitchen sink—oven cleaners, toilet-bowl scrubs, insect repellants and others. I realized that I knew almost nothing about their ingredients. And after a little research, I discovered there are some effective alternatives.

Commercial cleaning products all list terms on their labels such as "danger," "poison," "warning" and "caution," but what exactly do these words mean? According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the words "danger" and "poison" indicate that a product’s active ingredient is highly toxic, and as little as a few drops can kill the average adult. One teaspoon could be fatal for moderately toxic products carrying the "warning" label; slightly toxic substances on products are assigned the term "caution," meaning more than two tablespoons can be deadly. Such signal words are assigned to a product based on the amount of a substance required to kill 50 percent of the test subjects, usually rodents, and measured in milligrams of chemical per kilogram of body weight. The chemical lethal dose for an adult human far exceeds the amount required to kill a child or, for that matter, a dog, a raven or a salmon. Signal words also apply only to active ingredients; other ingredients do not have to be listed and often are not.

Philip Dickey, a staff scientist at the nonprofit consumer watchdog group, the Washington Toxics Coalition, suggests that people consider avoiding many products labeled with a "danger" signal word. "When it comes to recommending whether or not it’s safe to buy ‘caution’ products with respect to chronic long-term health effects, that’s a little more difficult to determine," he says. "Some ‘caution’ products can be carcinogenic or contain pesticides that persist in the environment."

Depending on the accuracy of the product label, looking for and understanding the signal word may be one way to cut down on the toxic stash under the sink. Another approach is to substitute less-toxic products. Though Dickey points out that this is not a path for everyone, he says that "the best argument for mixing your own is that you know exactly what is in them." When asked, Dickey always steers people toward Annie Berthold-Bond’s books based on her involvement in the household hazardous waste community.

An advocate for using safe solutions to household cleaning, Berthold-Bond outlines a return to tried and true materials in her latest book, Better Basics for the Home: Simple Solutions for Less Toxic Living (Three Rivers Press, 1999). The upstate New York author began investigating alternatives to using many commercial products in 1980, after she was poisoned by both a workplace gas leak and a since-banned neurotoxic pesticide that she came in contact with. This one-two punch left Berthold-Bond’s immune system extremely sensitive to low levels of chemicals in her environment.

"I had to learn how to cope," she recalls. "What happened to me could happen to anyone." Since the 1980 incident, Berthold-Bond has studied ingredient toxicology and field-tested numerous alternatives to certain commercial household products. Her resulting recipes clean comparably to their commercial counterparts and cost, on average, one-tenth the amount of those products.

"If the choice for polishing furniture, for example, is between polish in a can that reads ‘fatal if swallowed’ or using a simple but effective recipe of lemon juice and raw linseed oil," she says, "common sense guides us to the lemon and raw linseed oil." Following are a few other alternative ideas from Berthold-Bond:

  • A clean, green oven: Commercial oven cleaning products may contain sodium hydroxide, a corrosive chemical that is flagged with the "danger" signal word. It is a strong eye and skin irritant, and ingesting as little as a few drops of it can be fatal. Annie’s solution: "Sprinkle the bottom of the oven with baking soda to cover. Spray with water until very damp, and keep moist by spraying every few hours. Let it set overnight. In the morning, simply scoop out the baking soda—all the grime will be loosened—and rinse the oven well. Baking soda needs a lot of rinsing, but it is well worth the effort because it produces no toxic fumes."
  • Clear, streak-free windows: The content of commercial window cleaners varies and many of these products do not list what is in their mix of ingredients. Some brands are flagged using the "caution" signal word, meaning that consuming two tablespoons or more can be fatal. Often an active ingredient in these products, ammonia, is an eye, skin and respiratory irritant that can form hazardous vapors when mixed with chlorine. As an alternative, Berthold-Bond suggests combining 1/4 cup white vinegar, 1/2 teaspoon liquid soap or detergent (vegetable-oil-based soaps have a better environmental profile), 2 cups of water and for scent, a few drops of your favorite essential oil (optional). "A dab of dish soap on your first attempt helps remove the wax buildup left by commercial products, making it possible to use vinegar and water from then on," she explains.
  • A safer soft scrubber: Some soft-scrub formulations contain a form of chlorine (sodium hypochlorite) that can cause mild to moderate skin irritation and comes with a "warning" or "caution" signal word. Chlorine is the household chemical most frequently involved in U.S. poisonings; it reacts with organic materials in the environment to create other hazardous and carcinogenic toxins. Berthold-Bond recommends mixing 1/2 cup baking soda with liquid soap until a frosting-like consistency is reached. Add 5 to 10 drops of fragrant essential oil (optional). Scoop the creamy mixture onto a sponge, wash the bathtub, sink, countertop or shower stall and rinse.
  • A better tick repellent: Deet, the active ingredient in many insect repellents, is a "warning" signal-word ingredient that is harmful if swallowed. Berthold-Bond suggests using 10 to 25 drops of rose geranium essential oil with 2 tablespoons of almond oil and 1 tablespoon of aloe vera gel (optional). Combine the ingredients in a glass jar, stir to blend and dab a few drops on your skin or clothing. This recipe takes a few minutes to prepare and has a shelf life of about six months.

Choosing a lifestyle that includes home-mixed alternatives requires caution and care. For example, so-called "less-toxic" recipes that include irritants like ammonia, a chemical that harms aquatic life, or pest control sprays that contain black-leaf tobacco, a substance more toxic than commercial insecticides, can be dangerous themselves. For added safety, store all mix-at-home alternatives in new containers with each ingredient and portion clearly labeled.

The chemistry under my kitchen sink is considerably different today from what it was a year ago. I’ve traded in my potentially toxic stash of chlorinated soft scrubs and harsh oven cleaners for liquid castile soap and baking soda. Vinegar stands where a carcinogenic surface cleaner once stood. I clean my drains with washing soda and hot water, and my aphid plant spray is a clearly labeled mix of water, vegetable oil and soap.

To me, however, the real value of such alternatives is knowing that my family and I have created a healthier home, saved money and reduced any potential impacts on the environment. "If we establish healthy homes," says Berthold-Bond, "we’ll go a long way toward establishing a healthy planet." It makes sense.

Writer Susan Fay lives in Oregon. To read more about the Environmental Protection Agency’s toxicity rating scale, see: www.epa.gov/grtlakes/seahome/housewaste/src/toxrate.htm .

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