With all these potentially harmful substances on the market, how can you tell what's safe and what isn't? Looking at most household cleaning labels can leave you more mystified than enlightened. With over 50,000 chemicals appearing on store shelves, the majority of products list few, if any, ingredients.
The good news, however, is that last spring the EPA announced plans to provide better informational labels on hard-surface cleaning products; this would include listing health and environmental effects. Although the initiative could ultimately result in changes to existing regulations, it's currently a voluntary effort.
As it stands, household products containing hazardous substances fall under the jurisdiction of the US Consumer Product and Safety Commission (CPSC). Founded in 1972, the CPSC was charged with protecting the public from products which can cause illness or injury. Under the Hazardous Substance Act, the agency requires manufacturers to place warning labels on products containing ingredients deemed hazardous by the CPSC. The list of hazardous ingredients is far from complete, however, and concern is primarily focused on immediate reactions such as skin irritations.
Isn't there something more the government can do to protect us? To be fair, it tries. But because of limited resources and an approximate cost of $300,000 to investigate each chemical, the task of researching and regulating the market is staggering. And, because of "trade secret" laws, which deny public access to the composition of products, government agencies can't break the code of ingredients.
Although manufacturers seem to have the upper hand, they're far from complacent. According to Chemical & Engineering News, as public concern over household toxins grows, manufacturers routinely spend an estimated $150 million a year on studies, public relations, and advertising in an effort to convince us their products are safe.
BEFORE YOU TOSS
When you're ready to make the switch to natural cleaning products, you may be tempted to throw out every chemical cleaner in sight. Don't simply throw these products into the trash. According to an article in National Geographic, Americans throw away 4 million tons of hazardous waste each year. The problem goes beyond finding room in our landfills to accommodate this surplus of unsafe garbage. Hazardous household waste that ends up in local landfills slowly leaches into the ground, eventually contaminating groundwater supply. What you throw away today may come out of your kitchen faucet tomorrow.
In order to keep our landfills from becoming toxic waste dumps, many communities have set up hazardous waste disposal programs. Check with your local government or with private environmental organizations to see if they have special hazardous waste collection days in your area. Collection programs generally accept household cleaners, paints, and automotive products, such as motor oil or batteries.
If your community doesn't have such a program, consider starting your own. The League of Women Voters of Massachusetts offers a video and start-up kit for community hazardous waste programs. You can obtain these materials by writing to the League at 8 Winter Street, Boston, MA 02108.
If participating in a hazardous waste program isn't an option where you live, some toxic household waste can be made safe for regular disposal. Though not recommended for paste or powdered cleaners (which should either be used up or given to a friend), aerosol and liquid cleaners can be rendered less toxic. Working outdoors, simply spray aerosols on newspaper or pour liquids into kitty litter. Allow the substance to solidify or completely evaporate before throwing away.
While imaginative ad campaigns are often entertaining, they don't inform. Unfortunately, when it comes to synthetic chemicals, what you don't know can hurt you.
Downplayed by manufacturers, volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are carbon-based gasses released by a variety of commercial products, including cigarettes, gasoline, building materials, and household cleaners. According to the New York University Medical Center, indoor levels of VOCs can accumulate to dangerously high concentrations and are a leading contributor to "sick building syndrome." Able to cross the blood-brain barrier, VOCs can depress the central nervous system, leading to eye, nose, and throat irritation, headaches, dizziness, memory impairment, and even loss of consciousness.
Included in this class of chemicals are methylene chloride and para-dichlorobenzene (P-DCB), both known carcinogens. Found in a number of cleaners and degreasers, particularly aerosols, methylene chloride converts to carbon monoxide when inhaled and can cause impaired vision and coordination, nausea, fatigue, and flu-like symptoms. Repeated exposure can damage the liver, kidneys, and central nervous system.
Estimated to pose the highest cancer risk of all indoor pollutants, P-DCB is used in metal polishes, mothballs, and air fresheners. An irritant to skin, throat, and eyes, prolonged exposure to P-DCB can cause weakness, dizziness, weight loss, and liver damage.
Some toxins are by-products of the chemicals themselves. One such substance, dioxin, is formed whenever chlorine is used to bleach paper, fabrics, or home surfaces. Dioxin is, according to Dr. Barry Rumack, former director of the Rocky Mountain Poison Center in Denver, "probably one of the most toxic chemicals known in the world." Dioxins are readily accumulated in human tissue and don't break down in the environment. Although long-term health effects are controversial (dioxin is also a by-product of Agent Orange), dioxin has been found to cause mutagenic and carcinogenic changes in animals.
Kicking the Chemical Habit
Luckily, protecting yourself and your family from exposure to household toxins doesn't require detective skills or a degree in chemistry. There are a number of effective "green" alternatives to chemically-packed cleaners.
As public concern grows, more and more environmentally friendly companies are carrying ready-made natural household cleaners. A perfect marriage between convenience and healthy cleaning, these plant-based products are full of natural oils, herbs, and fruit acids, and can be found in health food stores or through mail-order companies.
The Scrub on Cleaners from Scratch
The greenest cleaners can often be found in your own kitchen. While not as convenient as buying ready-made cleaning products, making your own is both easy and inexpensive. Your basic cleaning needs can largely be met with six simple ingredients: vinegar, vegetable oil-based soap, borax, baking soda, washing soda, and salt. To save time and reduce packaging, buy your ingredients in bulk and keep a supply of basic cleaners on hand. But, remember, since some ingredients can be mildly toxic, store your homemade cleaners securely away from curious pets and children.
Here are a few tips to remember when shopping for natural household cleaners:
Read All Labels Carefully
True natural cleaning products should contain recognizable elements, such as citrus oil, and should list all ingredients on the label. Think twice if yours doesn't.
Use Biodegradable Products
When purchasing cleaners, keep in mind the health of the planet as well as your own. Petroleum-based ingredients don't break down in the environment, eventually polluting our waterways and marine wildlife. Most natural cleaners contain ingredients which decompose into harmless natural elements within a few days.
Refrain From Aerosol Dispensers
Aerosols may be more convenient, but propellants such as nitrous oxide and methylene chloride are released into the air every time the product is used. Choose pump dispensers instead.
Avoid Unnecessary Packaging
Avoid overwrapping and needless double boxing. Excessive plastic and cardboard packaging contributes to landfill overload.
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