Whether you’re getting down and dirty for an intense spring cleaning or just keeping up with your daily duties you’ll probably reach for a bottle of something to clean, deodorize, or disinfect. But what are you leaving behind once you’ve “cleaned” the surface? Many of us may not think about common household cleaners as being a health threat, unless consumed. But, there are known health hazards associated with many of these products. In addition to health concerns, what goes down the drain also impacts the environment. You may be surprised to learn that there are many natural, yet effective products you can use to clean your home and belongings. Some of them are probably already in your kitchen or pantry.
Common Ingredients in Non-Green-Cleaners
Bleach is probably the most common and inexpensive household cleaner. It will appear on disinfectant products as ‘sodium hypochlorite’. The fumes can be irritating to the lungs and can lead to asthma-like symptoms. Skin contact should also be avoided. Use caution when cleaning with multiple products as mixing bleach with ammonia causes the toxic gas chloramine to form. Mixing bleach with acids, including vinegar and ingredients in other cleaning products, can cause chlorine gas to be given off. High levels of exposure can cause chest pain, breathing problems, pneumonia and fluid in the lungs. The making and use of chlorine bleach also releases toxins into the environment, which can accumulate in animals and people over time.
VOCs (volatile organic compounds) are present in many household cleaners. They are smog forming chemicals that evaporate into the air and can cause eye and respiratory irritation.
Ammonia is a common ingredient in glass cleaners. It can irritate the eyes, skin, and lungs, and may cause headaches. Again, never mix ammonia with bleach due to the toxic gas that forms.
Petroleum distillates work to dissolve oil and grease, but are highly flammable and very dangerous if swallowed or if the fumes are inhaled. Long term exposure may damage the nervous system, skin, kidneys, and eyes.
Phosphates, now banned in many areas, are used as water softening agents and used to be common in many detergents. They negatively impact the environmental health of lakes by causing algae overgrowth, which reduces available oxygen for fish.
Formaldehyde is used as a preservative in many products and is a suspected carcinogen.
This is just a very tiny list when it comes to the hundreds of potentially harmful chemicals and compounds we use every day to clean our home, belongings, and even our bodies. Besides the obvious health hazards these compounds present, they can also cause more subtle health effects such as fatigue, mental fogginess, and allergy-like symptoms.
Green Cleaning Alternatives
There are plenty of products available that are effective green cleaners. You can find green household cleaners and other necessary products for dishes, laundry, and other household and personal needs. These products can be found in most natural retail stores and more increasingly in traditional market places. Some green cleaning product lines include Seventh Generation, Ecover, Life Tree, Earth Friendly Products, New Age, and Bio-Pac, just to name a few. There are many choices, so try a few and see what works best for you and your family’s needs.
A few things to look for when shopping for green cleaning products:
– Biodegradable and not toxic to animals or humans
– Recycled, recyclable, or refillable containers
– VOCs concentrations of less than 10% when diluted for use
– Works in cold water washes
– Free of chlorine bleach or sodium hypochlorite
– Low or no phosphates, less than .5%
Make Your Own You can also make your own green cleaning solutions with a few simple ingredients you may already have on hand.
All purpose cleaner – 4 tablespoons baking soda dissolved in 1 quart warm water. Apply with sponge and rinse with clear water. You may also apply the baking soda directly on a damp sponge for heavy duty cleaning.
A paste for scrubbing can be made using salt, water, and a little vinegar.
Toilet bowl cleaner – Sprinkle baking soda into the toilet, add vinegar, and scour with brush.
Furniture cleaner and polish – 3 cups olive oil and 1 cup vinegar mixed well and applied with a clean, soft cloth.
Glass cleaner – Mix together 2 tablespoons vinegar in 1 quart water or you may mix equal parts rubbing alcohol and water.
You can add essential oils, such as lavender and tea tree oil to the basic cleaning recipes to boost their cleaning and disinfecting power. Grapefruit seed extract (not to be confused with grape seed extract) is a natural antimicrobial agent that can also be added to kill germs. It is non-toxic to humans and animals and can even be taken internally to treat a variety of health problems. You can make an all purpose antiseptic cleaner by adding 30-60 drops of grapefruit seed extract to 32 ounces of water.
By incorporating green alternatives into your cleaning routine, you can help reduce your exposure to harmful chemicals and also do some good for the environment.
Clean Air Counts
Mississippi State University Extension Office
New Jersey Department of Health