The health & environmental effects of household cleaning products (Guest Post by Radhika C)
This article is a guest post written by Radhika Chandorkar, in a series done in Collaboration with in-yūgen, a sustainable lifestyle platform that helps you find ways to improve your environmental impact. Visit her website & Instagram page linked at the bottom of the article to stay updated on the current happenings in the world environment news, & how you can do your bit.
"The long checklist of household cleaning products we use today – laundry detergents, floor cleaners, dish detergents, surface cleaners and so on – are all designed for a world that prizes a spotless home. So much so that researchers have suggested that 'modern obsession with cleanliness' may be partly why we're seeing an increase in asthma allergies and conditions such as hay fever.
In all fairness, though, no one wants to be surprised with an unexpected bug on their toothbrush or chunky remnants of a past meal on their plate. For the most part, wanting our homes to be reasonably clean and hygienic is harmless. It's what we're using to accomplish this that isn't.
Many of our regular household cleaning products are composed of ingredients that, ironically, can be harmful to our health. They contain toxic chemicals that have been associated with (and, oftentimes, clinically found to lead to) health risks like allergies, lung problems and cancer. They're also damaging to the environment, effectively harming us all in another form that just takes a little more time to manifest in our day to day.
Rather than alarming us, knowing this can be empowering in its own way - it urges us to take a look at the household products we use and ask ourselves if there's scope to do better for both ourselves (and our families) and the world around us.
In that vein, here's what to make sure you're not letting into your homes and why:
- Found in: all-purpose cleaners and liquid dishwashing soap.
- Health effects: short-term exposure can cause irritation in the eyes, nose and throat. The EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) has established it as a probable carcinogen in the case of long-term exposure.
- Environmental effects: can be potentially damaging when released to water or soil, and can damage crops and material.
- Identifiable on product labels as: polyethylene glycol (PEG), polyethylene, polyoxyethylene, or oxynol-.
Quats (quaternary ammonium compounds)
- Found in: dishwashing liquids, hand soaps, window cleaners, “all-purpose” cleaners, floor products, disinfectant sprays and wipes, air fresheners, and other cleaning products that advertise anti-microbial activity.
- Health effects: contact dermatitis (skin dryness, rashes, etc.) through allergic reactions and direct contact, eye injuries, irritation of nose and throat, asthma.
- Environmental effects: toxic to many aquatic organisms like fish, algae and microorganisms.
- Identifiable on product labels as: benzalkonium chloride, benzethonium chloride, alkyl dimethyl benzyl ammonium chlorides, alkyl dimethyl benzyl ammonium chloride, alkyl dimethyl ethylbenzyl ammonium chloride, alkyl dimethyl ethylbenzyl ammonium chlorides, didecyldimethylammonium chloride and dioctyldimethylammonium chloride.
- Can be found in: household cleaners and bleach products.
- Health effects: respiratory problems (like coughing, difficulty breathing), throat swelling/pain, nausea, low blood pressure, eye problems (like blurry vision, irritation and vision loss in extreme cases), skin damage.
- Environmental effects: when released into local water bodies, chlorine forms into 'persistent organic pollutants', which take many years to disappear. By-products from chlorine bleach also harm local wildlife populations and can cause mutations, sterility and even extinction in wildlife species. Airborne chlorine bleach by-products are even linked to the depletion of the Earth's ozone layer.
- Identifiable on product labels as: sodium hypochlorite (aka “bleach”).
- Can be found in: detergents, pesticides and paints.
- Health effects: breathing problems and irritation of the eyes, nose, throat or skin.
- Environmental effects: highly toxic to aquatic life. Animals exposed to formaldehyde may get sick, unable to breed and have shorter lifespans.
- Identifiable on product labels as: formalin, methanal, oxymethylene, urea, 1,3-dioxetane, quaternium 15, methylaldehyde, methylene oxide, formic aldehyde, oxomethane formalin, phenol formaldehyde.
- Can be found in: window cleaning products and other household cleaning solutions.
- Health effects: irritation of the eyes, nose, throat and burning of the skin.
- Environmental effects: when in high concentrations, it can harm vegetation and is generally highly toxic to aquatic organisms.
- Identifiable on product labels as: NH3, ammonia gas, aqueous ammonia or ammonium hydroxide (when dissolved in water).
- Can be found in: wood cleaners, suede protectors, dry cleaners, spot removers, etc.
- Health effects: can harm the nervous system, liver, kidneys and reproductive system. Longer periods of exposure can lead to changes in memory, mood, attention, reaction time or vision.
- Environmental effects: contaminates groundwater and the air between soil particles
- Identifiable on product labels as: PCE, PERC, tetrachloroethene and perchlor.
- Can be found in: liquid hand soap, dishwashing detergent, laundry detergent, surface sprays, window cleaners, etc.
- Health effects: Not only do these not provide any added advantage over regular soap and water, but antibacterial agents like triclosan can also be harmful to our health. Triclosan results in skin irritation and an increase in allergic reactions.
- Environmental effects: The overuse of antibacterial cleaning products could be producing strains of bacteria that are resistant to multiple antibiotics, contributing to the massive public health challenge posed by antibiotic resistant bacteria (called “superbugs”). They also directly affect the environment when they are released into rivers and are toxic to aquatic habitats.
- Identifiable on product labels as: triclosan and triclocarbon.
- Can be found in: laundry detergents, floor cleaners, air fresheners.
- Health effects: Can trigger allergies, asthma, migraine headaches. Some of them may also disrupt the way our hormones function. The ingredients can include chemicals listed as carcinogens.
- Environmental effects: Contaminate waterways and harm aquatic life.
- Identifiable on product labels as: fragrance and parfum.
Reading product labels and staying away from products that mention any of these ingredients is one way to go. Another great, simple strategy? Creating your own cleaning products out of natural ingredients that are likely to be just where you'd have hoped: right there at home.
Join us again next week to know more about what you'd use & how to use it when opting to make your own cleaning products at home!
Guest written by:
Founder of in-yūgen, a sustainable lifestyle platform that helps you find ways to improve your environmental impact.