Be it at home or at nursery school, both parents and childcare providers struggle to win the infectious disease battle—or at least declare a truce—through regular use of powerful cleaning and disinfecting agents. But while these cleaners may protect your child by defeating the germ bugs, they may also pose potential health risks due to the sometimes toxic ingredients they contain. And while you cannot control the toxins that permeate public facilities, you do have a say in the how you choose to keep your own home clean.
Potential Health Risks of Common Cleaners
Keeping a clean house is a necessary step in providing a safe living environment. Through proper cleaning and disinfection in the kitchen, for example, contact with disease-causing bacteria from raw or undercooked meat, shellfish, fish, and eggs can be reduced. But the products we use to clean the house can also have unintended health consequences.
Some research regarding the health risks of cleaning products has focused on adult janitorial staff working with industrial cleaners in settings outside of the home. This is because they tend to use more powerful and concentrated cleaning products daily. While household cleaners tend to be more diluted and less potent than their industrial-strength counterparts, many do contain some of the same potentially harmful ingredients. And while both children and adults are susceptible to the consequences of toxic chemical exposure, children are more susceptible because of their rapidly growing bodies and immature immune systems.
Some chemicals that may be a concern include:
- Aerosol propellants
- Chlorine bleach
- Hydrochloric acid
- Hydrofluoric acid
- Isopropyl alcohol
- Paradichlorobenzenes (PDCBs)
- Petroleum distillates
- Trichloroethylene (TCE)
- Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) like:
- Ethylene glycol
These compounds can be found in floor and carpet cleaners, degreasers, toilet/tub/tile cleaners, room deodorizers, oven cleaners, furniture polishes and waxes, laundry detergents, and disinfectants.
What Can You Do?
The good news is that safer cleaning products are available, and you can also employ safer cleaning techniques to protect yourself, your family, even your pets. To start, be sure to read all labels well. Do not assume a green bottle labeled “natural” is toxin-free. Also consider the following pointers to avoid purchasing toxic cleaners:
Consider products with:
- Citrus or plant-based oils: orange and lemon for degreasing, tea tree and eucalyptus for disinfecting, and olive for polishing
- Enzymes to break up drain clogs
- Choose products that list ALL of their ingredients.
- Make your own cleaning products from non-toxic ingredients such as baking soda, club soda, and vinegar.
- Focus on cleaning; disinfect only when necessary. “If you clean well, you have to do far less disinfecting,” according to Dr. LeBlanc. “The goal is not to completely abandon disinfectants but use them wisely and judiciously.”
- Do not use chemical carpet cleaners.
- Use chlorine bleach sparingly. Consider using fragrance-free, non-chlorine bleaches containing hydrogen peroxide instead.
- Choose unscented cleaning products. Sometimes fragrances are added to mask the smell of toxic cleaners. Furthermore, fragrances themselves can trigger allergic reactions and asthma attacks.
- Be wary of concentrated cleaners that advertise safety only when used under certain conditions.
- Avoid cleaners carrying a "danger" or "warning" label.
Manufacturers of cleaning products are required to prepare a Material Safety Data Sheet containing information about a product’s health, fire, reactivity, and specific hazards, from a score of 0 (minimum) to 4 (severe) in each category. For household cleaning products, avoid any product with a score higher than 2 in any category. Visit the US Department of Health and Human Services Household Products Database (http://hpd.nlm.nih.gov/index.htm) to find this and other helpful information on household cleaners.
- Reviewer: Brian Randall, MD
- Review Date: 11/2011 -
- Update Date: 11/01/2011 -