Cleaning is essential to protecting our health in our homes, schools and workplaces. However, household and cleaning products—including soaps, polishes, deodorant, cosmetics, laundry detergent, lotions, and grooming supplies—often include harmful chemicals. Even products advertised as "green" or "natural" may contain ingredients that can cause health problems. Some cleaning supplies can be flammable or corrosive. Fortunately, you can limit your exposure to those risks.
Many cleaning supplies or household products can irritate the eyes or the throat or cause headaches or other health problems. Some products release dangerous chemicals, including volatile organic compounds (VOCs). Other harmful ingredients include ammonia, formaldehyde, parabens and bleach.
VOCs and other chemicals released when using cleaning supplies contribute to chronic respiratory problems, allergic reactions and headaches. Studies are underway to assess how these chemicals affect people who have asthma and other respiratory illnesses. However, past studies link exposure to chemicals from cleaning supplies to occupational asthma and other respiratory illnesses.
Products containing VOCs and other toxic substances can include:
- Aerosol spray products, including health, beauty and cleaning products
- Air fresheners
- Chlorine bleach
- Detergent and dishwashing liquid
- Dry cleaning chemicals
- Rug and upholstery cleaners
- Furniture and floor polish
- Oven cleaners
** Never mix bleach or any bleach-containing product with any cleaner containing ammonia. The gases created from this combination can lead to chronic breathing problems and even death. Recent research has found that even natural fragrances in cleaning products, particularly in air fresheners, may react with high levels of ozone from indoor sources, like some air cleaning devices, or from outdoor air to form formaldehyde and dangerous fine particles indoors. Ozone is a harmful, but invisible, gas that worsens asthma and other lung diseases. Particles are also common air pollutants that can worsen asthma and other lung diseases and risk heart attacks and stroke. Both ozone and particles can be life-threatening. Formaldehyde is a known human carcinogen.
HERE’S AN EYE OPENER!! Manufacturers are NOT obligated by U.S. law to list all ingredients in consumer products! Products that are labeled "green" do not necessarily mean they are safer.
- Institute of Medicine, Division of Health Promotion, Indoor Air and Disease Prevention. Clearing the Air: Asthma and Indoor Air Exposures. Washington, DC: National Academies Press, 2000. Kanchongkittiphon W, et al. Indoor Environmental Exposures of Asthma: An Update to the 2000 Review by the Institute of Medicine. Environmental Health Perspectives. 2015; 123: 6-20.
- Nazaroff WW, Weschler CJ. Cleaning Products and Air Fresheners: Exposure to Primary and Secondary Air Pollutants. Atmospheric Environment. 38, 2004: 2841-65.
- California Air Resources Board (CARB). Report to the California Legislature: Indoor Air Pollution in California. Sacramento, CA: California Environmental Protection Agency. 2005.
- Steinmann, AC. Fragranced Consumer Products and Undisclosed Ingredients. Environmental Impact Assessment Review 29,2009: 32-8.
- Sarwar G, Olson DA, Corsi RL, Weschler CJ. Indoor Fine Particles: The Role of Terpene Emissions from Consumer Products. Journal of Air Waste Management Association. 54(3) March 2004:367-77.
- California Air Resources Board. Fact Sheet: Cleaning Products and Indoor Air Quality. October 2008.
Building occupants, including cleaning personnel, are exposed to a wide variety of airborne chemicals when cleaning agents and air fresheners are used in buildings. Certain of these chemicals are listed by the state of California as toxic air contaminants (TACs) and a subset of these are regulated by the US federal government as hazardous air pollutants (HAPs). California's Proposition 65 list of species recognized as carcinogens or reproductive toxicants also includes constituents of certain cleaning products and air fresheners. In addition, many cleaning agents and air fresheners contain chemicals that can react with other air contaminants to yield potentially harmful secondary products. For example, terpenes can react rapidly with ozone in indoor air generating many secondary pollutants, including TACs such as formaldehyde. Furthermore, ozone–terpene reactions produce the hydroxyl radical, which reacts rapidly with organics, leading to the formation of other potentially toxic air pollutants.
Indoor reactive chemistry involving the nitrate radical and cleaning-product constituents is also of concern, since it produces organic nitrates as well as some of the same oxidation products generated by ozone and hydroxyl radicals.
Few studies have directly addressed the indoor concentrations of TACs that might result from primary emissions or secondary pollutant formation following the use of cleaning agents and air fresheners. In this paper, we combine direct empirical evidence with the basic principles of indoor pollutant behavior and with information from relevant studies, to analyze and critically assess air pollutant exposures resulting from the use of cleaning products and air fresheners. Attention is focused on compounds that are listed as HAPs, TACs or Proposition 65 carcinogens/reproductive toxicants and compounds that can readily react to generate secondary pollutants. The toxicity of many of these secondary pollutants has yet to be evaluated. The inhalation intake of airborne organic compounds from cleaning product use is estimated to be of the order of 10 mg d−1 person−1 in California. More than two dozen research articles present evidence of adverse health effects from inhalation exposure associated with cleaning or cleaning products. Exposure to primary and secondary pollutants depends on the complex interplay of many sets of factors and processes, including cleaning product composition, usage, building occupancy, emission dynamics, transport and mixing, building ventilation, sorptive interactions with building surfaces, and reactive chemistry. Current understanding is sufficient to describe the influence of these variables qualitatively in most cases and quantitatively in a few.
- “Cleaning products and air fresheners: exposure to primary and secondary air pollutants” William W. Nazaroff, Charles J. Weschler
- Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, University of California, Berkeley, CA 94720-1710, USA
- Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences Institute, University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey and Rutgers University, Piscataway, NJ 08854, USA
- International Centre for Indoor Environment and Energy, Technical University of Denmark, DK-2800 Lyngby, Denmark
BEWARE OF GREENWASHING
If a cleaning product at your supermarket proclaims itself “green,” “natural” or “biodegradable,” that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s nontoxic. In 2010 the environmental consulting firm TerraChoice Group produced a report called “The Sins of Greenwashing.” In it the group found more than 95 percent of so-called green consumer products had committed at least one “greenwashing sin,” like making an environmental claim that may be truthful but unimportant. “CFC-free,” for example, is a common one, since CFCs are banned by law. Donna Kasuska of ChemConscious offers this advice: “When gauging ecological claims, look for specifics. ‘Biodegradable in three to five days’ holds more meaning than ‘biodegradable,’ as most substances will eventually break down with enough time.”