When her baby began to fuss and cry while she was cleaning, Maria Santos of New York City became alarmed and puzzled. "My baby's eyes tear up every time I clean my house," says Maria. Maria doesn't experience any strange symptoms when she cleans, but her baby is very sensitive to the fumes and fragrances emitted from cleaning products. Rather than have her baby suffer, Maria now takes her baby to her sister's home, then returns home alone to clean. For most of us, this solution is inconvenient and may not be enough. Cleaners can cling to surfaces, fumes may linger for hours, and perfumes in laundry detergents can cause allergic reactions even weeks after washing. Even storing cleaners in your house can be hazardous to children. Babies find cleaning bottles an intriguing curiosity, which could spell disaster. In 1996, more than 21,000 children under the age of six were reported to poison control centers around the country as having ingested chlorine bleach. Another 10,000 young children reportedly swallowed glass cleaners. No deaths and very few life-threatening injuries resulted from these incidents, but all the worry could have been prevented simply by not using cleaners made with toxic chemicals.
Most people have become accustomed to using a large variety of chemicals to clean up. Hundreds of highly specialized chemical products have been designed to combat grease, dirt, mold, mildew, dust, and bacteria in every conceivable location of the house, from kitchen counters to shower tiles. More than 70,000 chemicals are registered with the EPA for use in cleaning products, including suspected hormone disruptors and carcinogens. Many of these chemicals contribute to indoor air pollution, are poisonous if ingested, and can be harmful if inhaled or if they come into contact with the skin. Despite this, manufacturers of cleaners are not obligated to list all the ingredients and their concentrations on labels, even if the ingredients are hazardous. While some companies print warnings on bottles, these often do not necessarily express the full range of the products' toxicity. In addition, so-called inactive or inert ingredients are not necessarily benign.
Irritating, Toxic, and Burning Chemicals
Infants and others may suffer acute reactions to some common cleaning chemicals, such as ammonia. The reactions may include irritation to skin, eyes, nose, and throat; dizziness; and headaches. Some fumes and fragrances may produce an allergic reaction, from rashes to sneezing and headaches. Ingestion of many chemicals can produce cramps, nausea, vomiting, and tissue damage and may even cause death. Caustic lye, an ingredient in some drain and oven cleaners, can cause burns. Chlorine bleach is a strong irritant to eyes, nose, throat, and lungs. Initial exposures may not cause any symptoms, but with prolonged use, sensitivities may suddenly appear. Chemicals from different cleaning products can also react with each other.
Warning: Never mix ammonia-containing products with products that contain lye or chlorine bleach, or chlorine-based products with those containing acid.
An ammonia-lye or ammonia-chlorine combination produces chloramine gasses that can damage the lungs. Chlorine bleach mixed with acid, which is used in some toilet bowl cleaners, forms toxic chlorine gas. Used during World War I for chemical warfare, chlorine gas can damage airways. Because so many household cleaners contain either chlorine bleach or ammonia, don't mix any cleaners, or use one cleaner on a surface that you have just cleaned with another. Better yet, avoid completely products containing either ammonia or chlorine bleach to prevent an accident from occurring.
Be very cautious with all extra-strength cleaners. Often they are simply not necessary. The most dangerous cleaning products are corrosive drain cleaners, oven cleaners, and acid-based bowl cleaners, says Philip Dickey, executive director of Washington Toxics Coalition (WTC) in Seattle. Corrosive products are dangerous because they burn human tissue easily. Ingestion can mean damage to mouth, throat, and esophagus. Inhalation may result in scarring of membranes in the nose and lungs, and contact with skin and eyes can produce severe burns. Corrosive cleaners may also react violently with other products. Safer, milder alternatives, such as Bon Ami Cleaner (a scouring powder), work just as well. Lisa Lefferts, Mothers & Others science advisor, says, "I find baking soda works fine on sinks and tubs." Preventive measures, such as lining your oven with aluminum foil to catch spills or installing screens on drains to catch hair, eliminate the need for cleaners that "eat away" stains and clogs.
Hormone Disruptors in Cleaners
A worrisome class of chemicals, alkylphenol ethoxylates (APEs), are used in many cleaning products, hair dyes, and pesticides as surfactants, an important cleaning agent in any cleaner, from soap to laundry detergent to shampoo. APEs don't biodegrade readily or completely, and, worse, they can break down into nonylphenol, which can disrupt hormone functions in animals and possibly in humans. Professor John Sumpter of Brunel University near London discovered a link between APE exposure of fish in rivers and a gender-bending characteristic-male fish producing female egg-yolk proteins. Drs. Ana Soto and Carlos Sonnenschein found in the late 1980s that p-nonylphenol can cause the growth of human breast cancer cells.
Philip Dickey of WTC has found APEs in 477 products, though there are probably more because many companies don't list them on labels. Dickey discovered that supermarket or drugstore brand laundry detergents are more likely to contain APEs than brand name products. In laboratory tests, three out of four nonchlorine disinfectants, as well as some "environmentally friendly" cleaners, contained APEs. But because manufacturers are not required to list ingredients, you wouldn't be able to tell by looking at the label. Dickey lists some APE-containing products in a WTC fact sheet called "Hormones in your Haircolor?"
Disinfectants, for the most part, are also not necessary. Disinfectants are EPA-regulated pesticides that kill bacteria. But you don't have to resort to chemical warfare to maintain a clean and safe home. You can adequately clean household surfaces with hot, sudsy water and a little elbow grease. In the bathroom and kitchen, you may feel a little more power is needed. Some herbal oils and extracts, such as Australian tea tree oil, pine oil, and citrus seed extract, are thought to have antibacterial and antifungal properties. But they have not been tested adequately to know which microbes they kill. They can be found in natural foods stores and increasingly in supermarkets. If you switch to these alternatives, bear in mind that homemade cleaners and disinfectants don't necessarily kill all bacteria and viruses (which is also true of some chemical disinfectants). For example, borax makes a good laundry detergent, mold remover, and bathroom cleaner, but don't rely on it for cleaning kitchen counters or cutting boards because borax does not kill Salmonella or the dangerous strain of E. coli, two worrisome bacteria that cause food poisoning. Earth Power's Power Herbal Disinfectant is a hospital-grade disinfectant made of herbs that kills some bacteria and viruses like Staphylococcus aureus and herpes simplex I. It doesn't necessarily kill all food pathogens, though, so don't rely on it to keep your kitchen safe.
Cleaners also have many environmental consequences that shouldn't be ignored. Synthetic cleaning ingredients are made from petroleum, a nonrenewable resource. Many of these do not biodegrade easily. These cleaning agents enter our waterways, the air, and the soil, and may remain there for some time, affecting wildlife and their habitats. Because we dump them in the trash, cleaning products often contaminate landfills, making them hazardous waste sites.
Phosphates, water-softening mineral additives, are still around. Despite all the criticisms, not all manufacturers have phased them out. Many states have banned phosphates from household laundry detergents and some other cleaning products, but automatic dishwasher detergents are usually exempt from such restrictions. This additive overnutrifies rivers and streams, causing excessive algae growth. Overabundance of algae deprives fish of oxygen and contributes to declining populations in many waterways.
Aerosol sprays made in the United States may no longer contain ozone-depleting chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), but they often contain a higher VOC content than nonaerosol products. Petroleum-based propellants, such as butane and propane, contain VOCs and are flammable. Disinfectants and solvent-based spot removers (made of petrochemicals) packaged in aerosol cans also have high VOC levels. Aerosol sprays produce a fine spray of chemicals that can be more easily absorbed by the body. With contents under pressure, aerosol cans are explosive at high temperatures or pressure.
There are many other chemicals to avoid in your home. We have provided a listing of some toxic chemicals in cleaning products in the chart below. Several books with more information are listed in Appendix C. Keep in mind, though, that reading the label of a cleaning product may not be helpful when you are making purchasing decisions. Most ingredient listings are vague and incomplete. Instead, avoid cleaners that have these warning words: Caution, danger, corrosive, or caustic.
Safer Alternative Detergents
Now is a good time to reduce or eliminate your use of most conventional detergents. Milder, less toxic cleaners are available. Seventh Generation, EarthRite, Aubrey Organics, Auro, Biofa, Dr. Bronner's, Livos, AFM, and Ecover are sold in many natural foods stores, or you can order these and other brands through the mail (see Appendix B). You can also find mild alternatives in the supermarket, such as Bon Ami and Mr. Clean. WTC's booklet, Buy Smart, Buy Safe: A Consumer's Guide to Less-Toxic Products, rates the environmental and health safety of hundreds of cleaning products. Remember to avoid chlorine and ammonia, to prevent the possibility of mixing them; caustic, corrosive, and extra-strength cleaners; dishwasher detergents containing phosphates; and aerosol sprays. Also, try to use unscented laundry detergents-such as Arm & Hammer's scent-free detergent-and fabric softeners; scented products might cause allergic reactions. You may want to stop using fabric softeners completely; these temporary fabric treatments that coat clothing fibers to prevent static cling are usually unnecessary. Natural fibers, such as cotton, wool, linen, and hemp, don't get static-y in the dryer the way synthetics do. Reducing the amount of detergent you use, too, will help reduce the itchiness and discomfort of just-laundered clothing. Often, detergent residues remain on laundered items, making them stiff.
You can also do most of your household cleaning and laundry with safe and basic ingredients: lemon juice, baking soda, vinegar, borax, salt, olive oil, and vegetable soaps. Clean & Green by Annie Berthold-Bond and Clean House, Clean Planet by Karen Logan have recipes for homemade cleaners. Logan also sells empty plastic bottles with her recipes on the labels for home preparations. Whatever you choose, homemade or commercial, keep cleaners out of the reach of children in secure cupboards. Even safer cleaners can pose a health risk when ingested.
Lingering Dry Cleaning Fumes
Having clothes professionally cleaned doesn't necessarily mean perfectly clean clothes. Nearly all dry cleaners in the United States use perchloroethylene (perc), a toxic organochlorine solvent, to remove stains, dirt, and odors from all types of clothing. In January 1996, just after Mori Mickelson, who was living above a dry cleaner in New York City, learned she was pregnant, the New York State Department of Health began a pilot study to determine PERC levels in residents living above dry cleaners. Researchers found PERC in Mori's blood, urine, and breast tissue. After she had given birth to her son, they found PERC in her breast milk.
There is reason to worry about even a minute amount of this chemical. The EPA has classified PERC as a hazardous air pollutant. The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) lists PERC as a probable human carcinogen. PERC has been linked to nervous system, kidney, liver, and reproductive disorders in lab animals and a higher risk of cancer among dry cleaning workers. Acute exposures may cause headaches, dizziness, burning in the lungs, and loss of consciousness. Even after dry cleaned clothes have dried, residues of PERC may cling to clothing fibers and then dissipate into your home.
Dry cleaning workers and people living in buildings where a dry cleaning establishment is located are at the greatest risk for harm, but people who visit dry cleaners and wear clothes cleaned in PERC regularly also may be at risk. In the 1980s, EPA studies found that people who reported visiting a dry cleaning shop showed twice as much PERC in their breath, on average, as other people. EPA also found that levels of PERC remained elevated in a home for as long as one week after placing newly dry cleaned clothes in a closet. In a March 1996 report, Consumers Union found that people who wear freshly dry cleaned clothes, such as a jacket and shirt, every week over a forty-year period could inhale enough PERC "to measurably increase their risk of cancer"-by as much as 150 times what the EPA considers "negligible risk."
Avoid dry cleaning any of your and your baby's clothing and bedding. Any PERC-cleaned clothes that you bring into your home may increase your child's exposure to this dangerous chemical. You can best avoid it by purchasing only machine- or hand-washable garments.
If you do have clothes that require professional cleaning, there are alternatives to conventional dry cleaning. Many garments, in fact, do not need to be professionally cleaned, according to Consumer Reports. Many manufacturers, rather than risk consumer ire due to shrunken or otherwise damaged garments, recommend dry cleaning for clothing that could be hand-washed safely. The key is knowing how to wash the clothes in the first place.
For garments that cannot be handwashed, due to intricate tailoring or lack of color-fastness, there are professional cleaning processes that do not pose the health risks of PERC. Professional wet cleaning, which involves customized treatment for each garment using soap and water, has been around for fifty years. Depending on the type of fabric and construction, clothing is either machine-washed in water with special computerized machines, steam cleaned, or hand washed; then it is machine- or air-dried, pressed, and finished. Wet cleaning can be used on almost any garment, and on average, prices are the same as at a dry cleaner. There are more than 150 wet cleaning operations across the country. Another recently developed, though not yet available, alternative to PERC is carbon dioxide (CO2). As a gas, CO2, which is what we exhale and use to decaffeinate coffee, is a benign and inexhaustible resource. To clean clothes, gaseous CO2 is liquefied in a high-pressure washing machine. After washing, the CO2 is reconverted to gas.
Greenpeace has a listing of wet cleaners in the United States and Canada on their website. Ecomat, a wet cleaning franchise, is opening new facilities all over the country, and they also take clothes via United Parcel Service (UPS). You can also ask around. Some dry cleaners don't wet clean themselves, but will send the clothes to another facility if you ask.
Excerpted from: Guideto Natural Baby Care, by Mindy Pennybackerand Aisha Ikramuddin
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