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The Health Risks of Cleaning Products

There are certain times of the year when most householders will embark on a cleaning binge, with the traditional Spring clean and the period just prior to Christmas being arguably the two most common times when most of us will be caught up in a dusting, mopping and vacuuming frenzy. But in our efforts to have our homes as clean and shiny as possible, are we compromising our health and the health of our families?

In recent years, a number of studies have been carried out to find out what effects (if any) everyday cleaning products can have on the health of those that use them. While most of the findings have been positive and state that a majority of products are safe to use when specific safety guidelines have been followed, there have been some surprising results. Worryingly, some popular and well known products were found to contain levels of toxins and chemicals above the legal limit and how these particular toxins and chemicals, when mixed, can cause health risks under certain conditions.

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One of the most troubling and reoccurring findings is that some of the most commonly used cleaning products and air fresheners, while being labeled as ‘green’, ‘environment friendly’ and ‘non-toxic’, have been found to contain pollutants that when mixed indoors, particularly with Ozone, can be harmful to both people and pets. In fact, the exposure levels of these pollutants, and resulting secondary pollutants, can significantly exceed the regulatory guidelines for these products. Ozone is an unstable substance that’s found naturally in our atmosphere and is present in very small quantities in most households. Normally, it poses no threat but when Ozone is mixed with certain elements, it can become a respiratory hazard.

So, what products in particular should citizens be the most concerned about? Two types of products were found to be the most hazardous and they included various types of multi-surface and all-purpose floor cleaners. Methoxydiglycol (DEGME), a compound that requires strict regulations for usage as it is suspected of causing damage to unborn infants, occurred in abnormally high levels in one brand of multi-surface cleaner. Another brand of all-purpose floor cleaner was labeled as ‘non-toxic’, however the solvent 2-butoxyethanol was present in the solution. Absorbed through the skin, 2-butoxyethanol causes eye irritation and damage to red blood cells and yet this particular brand was also available for purchase as a ready to use spray, albeit with instructions on the packaging to dilute before usage.

The common air freshener, particularly brands that contain terpenes, can cause a toxic reaction when mixed with ozone. Terpenes are a form of chemical that are found in orange, lemon and pine oils and they are typically added to an air freshener to produce a specific smell or aroma. When terpenes are mixed with Ozone however, they can produce toxic compounds that are harmful to humans and animals. In addition, the use of air fresheners in close proximity to machines or equipment that naturally emit Ozone, such as air purifiers, photocopiers and printers, can produce a compound similar in form to a smog or haze as well as formaldehyde; a group 1 carcinogen and a known respiratory irritant.
Other everyday cleaning products that raised concerns were carpet and upholstery shampoo which contains highly toxic substances, such as perchlorethylene and ammonium hydroxide. Perchlorethylene is a carcinogen which can cause kidney and liver damage, while ammonium hydroxide is a corrosive which irritates the eyes and skin. Furniture polish contains petroleum distillates which can cause lung and skin cancer and are highly flammable. Oven cleaners contain ammonia and lye which can burn the skin, and the fumes from these products can also affect respiratory functions.

The manufacturers of most of these products have swiftly responded to the results of these studies by saying that they have carried out extensive testing and that the products are safe to use. What they fail to make clear, however, is that the effects of these cleaning products under certain conditions or if these products are mixed with other cleaning agents. Although these cleaning products can be harmful to us, many of us will continue to buy and use them to ensure our residences remain clean. The authors of these studies appreciate this and wish to highlight the health concerns surrounding the use of these cleaning agents, and as such, they have outlined the following general guidelines to abide by when using powerful cleaning products in the home:

1. Store cleaning products in a safe place and out of the reach of children. Each year, over 2 million children in the United States are treated for chemical poisoning due to the ingestion of cleaning products. These cleaning products should also be kept in their original packaging and stored in a cool, dry place.

2. Educate yourself. Before using such a product it is imperative that the instructions and guidelines are carefully read and understood. Do not exceed the amount of product stated in the guidelines and never mix cleaning products as the results can be very harmful. The authors also suggest contacting the manufacturer of the cleaning product for advice if necessary.

3. Always ensure the room being cleaning is well ventilated. It is very important to ensure the area being cleaned and where these products are being used is ventilated during and after cleaning. This will help ensure that any harmful fumes are absorbed into the general atmosphere and reduce the risk of individuals inhaling potentially toxic fumes.


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