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The dirty truth about household cleaning products

April 17, 2020 by Kimberly Drake

I am known to be a type-A personality when it comes to cleaning. One speck of dust floats by, and suddenly the whole house needs to be completely scoured from top to bottom. 

Although I’ve calmed down a bit over the past decade or so, and now allow two specks of dust instead of just one to float by before pulling out the vacuum, it’s still a priority for me. This obsession I have is what made a recent study that crossed my desk on the health hazards of cleaning so interesting, as apparently, I’m doing myself more harm than good by being such a clean freak. And because I was in my most intense cleaning glory when I had small children in the house, it’s fortunate their health didn’t suffer from my drive to keep everything spotless.   

The latest study that got me thinking, and rethinking my clean freak-ism, was published Feb. 18 in the Canadian Medical Association Journal. Researchers looked into the relationship between cleaning products and respiratory issues in children. The team found babies with the highest levels of exposure to cleaning products had a 37% rise in their risk of being diagnosed with asthma by three years of age. These babies also had a 35% higher risk of developing recurrent wheezing. 

Household products to blame included hand dishwashing soap, dishwasher detergent, multi-surface cleaners, glass cleaners and laundry soap, which is pretty much what most people use daily. The worst offenders were products that contained heavy fragrance or those that were sprayed onto surfaces. Scientists postulate chemicals in cleaning products may damage infants’ respiratory lining by triggering inflammatory pathways in the immune system, leading to asthma and wheeze. They also state that these chemicals may change the baby’s gut biome, which is known to be the epicenter of the immune system. 

Studies specific to adults include one body of research from the University of Bergen in Norway. In this study, researchers found women who cleaned their own homes or cleaned for a living, using cleaning sprays, had a more significant decline in lung function over time than those who never clean. Other studies have found certain cleaning ingredients like p-nonylphenol, caused estrogen-sensitive breast cancer cells to multiply in a test tube.

Although it’s nice to have a clean smelling home, the National Institute of Occupational Health found that one-third of chemicals used in fragrances were toxic. Not only are fragranced products worrisome, but according to a 2014 article published in the International Journal of Occupational and Environmental Health, there’s a whole array of cleaning product ingredients considered hazardous including, glycol ethers, surfactants, solvents, and to a lesser extent, phosphates, salts, detergents, and pH-stabilizers.

So, what are the clean-obsessed people like me supposed to do now?

Fortunately, there are many inexpensive and safe products available to clean your home, and they can work just as well, if not better than chemically-laden products. These include soap and water, baking soda, vinegar, lemon juice and even vodka. Many websites have information on making your own cleaning concoctions, which not only are safer, but less expensive than store-bought brands.

If you just don’t have time to concoct your own homemade “green” cleaning products, there are a plethora of natural products on the market, a lot more than back when my children were young. However, as with any purchase, its buyer beware, and just because a brand claims to be “green” or “natural” doesn’t necessarily mean its nontoxic. It’s best to scan through the ingredient list to make sure you’re not purchasing a product with hidden toxins.

The Environmental Protection Agency makes the search for better products easier with their Safer Choice label of approval that helps consumers and commercial buyers identify products with safer chemical ingredients, without sacrificing quality or performance. You can search more than 2,000 products online at epa.gov/saferchoice to find brands that currently qualify to carry the Safer Choice label.

There’s nothing wrong with wanting to reside in a clean home, and living in an environment that is dusted and vacuumed regularly does help reduce allergies and related health problems. The key to both a spotless house and a clean bill of health is changing what type of products you use, not how much you use them. Making nontoxic cleaners or using products that are truly “green” will allow you to tidy up the house to your heart’s content and do so with a clean conscience.

Kimberly Drake can be reached at [email protected]

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