Toxics 101: The dirt on household cleaning products

Cleaning is supposed to be about maintaining a healthy home, yet some common household cleaning products contain chemicals that can harm human health and the environment. What a mess.

When we use these chemicals to clean our home, they linger in the air and we breathe them in. Chemicals in cleaning products can also enter our bodies through the skin or through ingestion of household dust and chemical residues left on dishes and cutlery. And when cleaning products are flushed down the drain, they can have a serious impact on aquatic ecosystems.

There is no requirement in Canada for manufacturers to warn consumers about the health and environmental hazards associated with long-term exposure to chemical ingredients in household cleaning products. Most of us are exposed to cleaning products and their residues at low levels everyday.

The following is a list of some chemicals of concern. Because many cleaners carry no ingredient list, or provide only a partial list of ingredients, it can be challenging to identify these chemicals in the products you bring into your home. Careful! They may be hiding in your cleaning closet!

2-Butoxyethanol (2-BE, also known as butyl cellosolve)

A skin and eye irritant also associated with blood disorders.

Found in: glass cleaners, laundry stain removers, carpet cleaners, automobile cleaners, windshield wiper fluid, degreasers, oven cleaners, and rust removers.

Alkylphenol ethoxylates (APEs)/Nonylphenol ethoxylates (NPEs)

Can mimic estrogen and have reproductive effects on aquatic organisms.

Found in: liquid laundry detergents, stain removers, all-purpose cleaners, air fresheners, toilet bowl cleaners, degreasers, and car wash products.

Ammonia

Vapours may irritate the skin, eyes, throat, and lungs. People with asthma may be particularly sensitive to the effects of breathing ammonia. May also cause kidney and liver damage.

Found in: window cleaners, drain cleaners, toilet cleaners, bathroom cleaners, oven cleaners, stainless-steel cleaners, car polish, and all-purpose cleaners.

Coal tar dyes

Concern that synthetic dyes may cause cancer and that heavy metals can harm the nervous system.

Found in: most types of cleaning products.

Fragrance chemicals/Synthetic Musks/Phthalates

Irritants that can trigger allergies, migraines, and asthma symptoms. Can build up in the environment and can be toxic to aquatic organisms. Suspected endocrine disrupters.

Found in: most types of cleaning products.

Monoethanalomine (MEA), Diethanolamine (DEA) and Triethanolamine (TEA)

Can react with nitrites (present as preservatives or contaminants in other products) to form cancer-causing nitrosamines. MEA is also known to induce asthma. Harmful to fish and other wildlife.

Found in: liquid laundry detergents, all-purpose cleaners, floor cleaners, car wash products, degreasers, dishes soap, oven cleaners, and glass and surface cleaners.

Phosphates

High concentrations in bodies of water can promote harmful algal bloom, increase weed growth and kill fish.

Found in: dishwasher detergents, laundry detergents, and bathroom cleaners.

Quaternary ammonium compounds (quats)

Irritate and sensitize skin, cause allergies, and trigger asthma. Don�t readily degrade in the environment. Toxic to fish.

Found in: bathroom cleaning products, all-purpose cleaners, fabric softeners, and degreasers.

Silica powder

Rated by the International Agency for Research on Cancer as a known human carcinogen. This natural ingredient (made from finely ground quartz) is hazardous as a dust if inhaled.

Found in: abrasive cleaning powders.

Sodium dichloroisocyanurate dihydrate

Corrosive; severe eye, skin and respiratory irritant. High doses of this chemical cause kidney damage. Very toxic to aquatic organisms and may cause long-term effects in aquatic ecosystems.

Found in: toilet bowl cleaners, deodorizers, surface cleaners, and disinfectants

Sodium hydroxide (also known as lye and caustic soda)

Highly corrosive; can burn the eyes, skin and lungs and is a respiratory irritant. Long-term exposure in the air may lead to ulceration of the nasal passages and chronic skin irritation. If discharged in large quantities, can alter the pH of water.

Found in: oven cleaners, bathroom cleaners, disinfectants, drain openers, and toilet bowl cleaners

Sodium laureth sulfate

Found in dish soap with other ethoxylated alcohols (look for �eth� in the chemical name). Can be contaminated with 1,4-dioxane, which may cause cancer, and is persistent in the environment.

Found in: dish soap, liquid laundry detergents, cleaning towelettes, and toilet bowl cleaners (as well as sudsy cosmetics).

Triclosan

May interfere with hormone function and contribute to antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Harmful to fish and other wildlife.

Found in: dish soaps and disinfectants, as well as a wide range of other household products. Look for it listed as an �active ingredient� in antibacterial products.

Trisodium nitrilotriacetate

A possible human carcinogen. In aquatic ecosystems, can also cause heavy metals in sediment to redisolve and these metals are toxic to fish and other wildlife.

Found in: bathroom cleaners and possibly some laundry detergents (more common in industrial formulations).

Sources

ATSDR. 2002. "ToxFAQsTM: Sodium Hydroxide."

ATSDR. 2004. "ToxFAQsTM: Ammonia."

ATSDR. 2011. "ToxFAQsTM: 2-Butoxyethanol." Toxic Substances Portal.

B.C. Ministry of Environment. "CN Rail — Cheakamus River Sodium Hydroxide Spill." Environmental Emergency Management Program.

Burrows, Mae, Sean Griffin, and Larry Stoffman. 2009. Cleaners and Toxins Guide. Toxic Free Canada.

Canada. 2006. 2-Butoxyethanol Regulations.

Canada. 2009. Regulations Amending the Phosphorus Concentration Regulations.

Environment Canada. 2010. "2010 Progress Report -- P2 Planning and Nonylphenol and Ethoxylates in Products." Pollution and Waste.

Environment Canada, and Health Canada. 2001. Priority Substances List Assessment Report: Nonylphenol and Its Ethoxylates.

Environment Canada. 2010. Assessment Report for Glycine, N,N-bis(carboxymethyl)-.

Environmental Working Group. 2008. "EPA Proposes Roll-back of Food Safety Standards at Request of Pesticide Manufacturer."

Environmental Working Group. "Sodium Lauryl Sulfate." Skin Deep Cosmetics Database.

European Parliament and Council. 2009. Regulation on Classification, Labelling and Packaging of Substances and Mixtures. Foundation for Water Research. "Toxic Algal Blooms in Drinking Water Resevoirs."

Gorman, Alexandra. 2007. Household Hazards: Potential Hazards of Home Cleaning Products. Women�s Voices for the Earth.

Hegstad, K, S Langsrud, BT Lunestad, AA Scheie, M Sunde, and SP Yazdankhah. 2010. "Does the Wide Use of Quaternary Ammonium ... [Microb Drug Resist. 2010] - PubMed - NCBI." Microb Drug Resist. 16 (2) (June): 91�104.

Labour Environmental Alliance Society. "Toxins in Household Products."

Renner, Rebecca. 2002. "From Triclosan to Dioxin." Environmental Science & Technology 36 (11) (June 1): 230A.

Santa Cruz Biotechnology, Ltd. "Sodium Dichloroisocyanurate Dihydrate Material Safety Data Sheet."

Steinemann, A, I MacGregor, S Gordon, L Gallagher, A Davis, D Ribeiro, and L Wallace. 2011. "Fragranced Consumer Products: Chemicals Emitted, Ingredients Unlisted." Environmental Impact Assessment Review 31 (3) (April): 328�333. doi:10.1016/j.eiar.2010.08.002.

Steinman, David, and Samuel Epstein. 1995. The Safe Shopper�s Bible. New York: Macmillan. US EPA. 2011. The Inside Story: Indoor Air. US EPA.

Lindsay Coulter

Here's the dirt. You've probably been in a long term relationship with your home cleaners. But they may not be the safest, healthiest choice for you and your family.

I've rid my home of chemical cleaners and you can too! Take my cleaning advice (also on Facebook and Twitter).

Poll

Do your cleaners have an eco-label?