Just 50 years ago, most chemicals found under our sinks existed only in chemistry labs. Today, we consider them essential to modern life. We're in the habit of grabbing the same "pine fresh" cleaning products -- without pausing to consider the hazards we are bringing into our homes.
With more than 2 million poisonings reported each year, it's vitally important to stop and rethink what we're using to clean our homes. The trouble is that sometimes you don't even know when you're buying a hazardous product. Manufacturers are not required to list all of their ingredients, unless they're active disinfectants or known to be potentially hazardous. So the first line of defense is to avoid cleaners marked "danger", "corrosive" or "may cause burns". The second step is to watch out for specific chemicals known to cause damage through inhalation, ingestion or absorption. Here are five of the most common offenders.
Carpet cleaners can contain naphthalene (found in mothballs) and perchloroethylene (often used in dry cleaning), known human carcinogens which can cause central nervous system (CNS) effects like dizziness, sleepiness and nausea. They may also include ammonia and synthetic fragrances. The amount of chemicals released from carpet cleaners and deodorizers can be considerable when large areas of the carpet have been cleaned. Children spend an awful lot of time crawling and playing on the carpet, so they are most susceptible.
Go Green Products offers Clean + Green, Simple Solutions, Halo, Pittas and other all natural carpet cleaners. If you're planning to have your carpets professionally cleaned, be sure you locate a company who uses products certified by an independent organization like Green Seal. You can also ask them to clean using only water and baking soda, steam or club soda.
You've probably seen "phosphate-free" labels trumpeted by the big names in laundry detergents for a long time. Phosphates were banned in laundry detergents because they pollute ground water supplies. It makes sense that the same principle should apply in other types of detergents, right? But that isn't the case. Phosphates are still a major, and legal, ingredient in many dishwashing detergents, although several states have proposed a ban.
And that's not all. Closer to home, dishwasher detergents also typically include chlorine, which as we've seen can be a major cause of respiratory ailments. How? Simple: Chlorine fumes are especially volatile when heated during the drying cycle of your dishwasher. And if you open the door of your dishwasher early to get something you need -- as we have all done -- you get a nice toxic facial. Lovely.
Drain cleaners come in both solid crystals and liquid forms. Either way, they're some of the most hazardous products in your home. Most contain lye, bleach, potassium hydroxide and sulfuric acid (mostly in liquids). I mean think about it: Their job is to dissolve human hair and waste in drains.
The best solution is to prevent clogs in the first place. Capture hair, food and other drain-clogging particles by using a drain screen. If you do get a clog, however, use an old fashioned plunger (but never after you've already tried a caustic cleaner). There are also biological or enzyme-based drain cleaners, but they're better at keeping drains clean than unplugging clogged ones.
Oven cleaners are a big concern. Almost all of them contain lye, which is terrifically corrosive and can cause severe burns. These products come in several forms, but by far the worst is the aerosol form, which produces an easy-to-inhale fine mist. Even tiny amounts will cause your lungs to burn. In severe exposures, your upper airway can contract and asphyxia can occur.
So how do you keep your oven clean? You don't actually. But you can help keep it from getting dirty by lining the oven floor with aluminum foil to catch spills or by using a scouring paste of baking soda mixed with sea salt.
Typical toilet bowl cleaners contain hydrochloric acid (HCL) and bleach. We already know that bleach causes harm if you simply breathe its fumes. But did you know that exposure to high levels of HCL vapor can result in rapid breathing, narrowing bronchioles and even death? Some people exposed to HCL develop the inflammatory condition called reactive airways dysfunction syndrome, the same chemically induced form of asthma that threatened my son.