Most household cleaners are a witch’s brew of toxic chemicals, industrial waste and carcinogens when all you need are some old fashioned cleaning staples and a bit of elbow grease.

In 1999, we published an investigative report on toxic toiletries by our contributing editor Pat Thomas (WDDTY vol 10 no 7). The article caused a furore, raising public awareness about the chemical dangers in common cleaning products. Pat Thomas went on to write a book on the subject, Cleaning Yourself to Death (Gill & Macmillan, 2001). The following is an exclusive extract from the book. (The text has no references as it is meant to be a popular guide, but her sources are noted in the book.)

Most of us think of our homes as safe havens and environmental pollution as a problem that is ‘out there’. There may have been a time when that was true, but not any more. Today, some of the most toxic chemicals we come into contact with are not blown in through the window from some anonymous factory or passing car. We buy them ourselves in good faith and bring them into our homes.

Many of the products we use every day contain chemicals officially designated as ‘hazardous waste’ by government agencies. Household cleaners while there seems to be a huge selection of different household cleaners on supermarket shelves each with its own special ‘formulation’ most of them contain the same range of ingredients. For these products to live up to the promise of effortless cleaning, they tend to be much stronger and more concentrated than necessary for everyday use. Never the less, few are significantly more efficient than simple soap and hot water for loosening dirt and grime from household surfaces. All purpose cleaners come in liquid, cream and powder forms. The typical liquid cleaner contains detergents/surfactants, solvents such as ethanol, isopropanol, butyl cellosolve or glycols, disinfectants such as ammonia, bleach (sodium hypochlorite), phenol and pine oil, fragrances and colours. Abrasive or cream formulas contain fine particles of abrasives such as plastic, silica, calcite, feldspar and quartz. Most also contain undisclosed preservatives such as quaternary ammonium compounds and ethylenedia minetetraacetic acid (EDTA).

Detergents/surfactants may contain carcinogenic chemicals or a mixture of chemicals that interact with other chemicals to form carcinogens. Surfactants such as diethanolamine (DEA), trietha nolamine (TEA) and morpholine can react with undisclosed preservatives or contaminants to form carcinogenic nitrosamines that are easily absorbed into the skin. Some may also contain the carcinogen 1,4 dioxane.

EDTA. As an alternative to phosphates, some products contain chemicals like EDTA to reduce water hardness, and to stabilise bleach and foaming agents to prevent them from becoming active before they are immersed in water. The health effects of some chemicals are direct, such as headaches and skin rash, whereas others are indirect. EDTA can irritate the skin, but it also binds with toxic metals in the environment, and returns them to the water supply and food chain, especially fish and shellfish.

Solvents enter the body via the skin and lungs. These are hazardous chemicals associated with liver and kidney problems, birth defects and neurological disorders. Many solvents adversely affect the central nervous system (CNS), producing symptoms of drunkenness. Butyl cellosolve is a neurotoxin (attacking the nervous system) that is quickly absorbed into the skin, which is why you should always wear rubber gloves when using cleaning fluids. Inhalation can cause headaches, nausea and damage to internal tissues and organs such as the liver and kidneys. Some allpurpose cleaners contain ethylene glycol monobutyl acetate, a relative of butyl cellosolve that can damage internal organs via skin absorption.

Disinfectants essentially pesticides are common in allpurpose cleaners. Skin contact and vapours can be irritating and corrosive to the skin and respiratory system. They are especially hazardous when dispersed from aerosol cans and sprays because the disinfectant is then easily inhaled via the nose and mouth. Common disinfectants include ammonia, bleach, pine oil, lye, cresol and phenol (see below). Such products are, at best, a temporary measure for making your home ‘germ free’.

Ammonia is a poison. Its fumes, even at the low levels contained in most glass cleaners, can irritate the eyes, lungs and skin. Such products should not be used around children or elderly people with respiratory problems such as asthma since ammonia can aggravate these conditions. Splashes can cause burns or skin rash. Never mix ammonia with chlorine containing products since the result is a deadly chloramine gas.

Phenol (carbolic acid) causes CNS depression and can severely affect the circulatory system. It is corrosive to the skin and is also a suspected carcinogen. Skin contact can cause ulcers, skin rash, swelling, pimples and hives. As phenol is also an anaesthetic, extensive damage can occur to the skin and tissues before pain is even perceived.

Pine oil, derived from steam distillation of pinewood, is a common ingredient in household disinfectants and deodorants. In its concentrated form, it is a skin irritant and may cause allergic reactions.

Colours and dyes used in household cleaners can also be readily absorbed into the skin. The dyes are usually carcinogenic coaltar dyes. They can also contain carcinogenic impurities like arsenic and lead.

Fragrances. As household cleaners contain strong detergents and other chemicals that don’t smell particularly nice, manufacturers put very strong fragrances into them. These add nothing to the cleaning power of a product, but can irritate the skin and lungs and, if not used cautiously, can damage the very surfaces they are meant to clean. Bleach safetyLiquid household bleaches contain around 5 per cent sodium hypochlorite. Used properly, it is a simple and effective disinfectant, but chlorine bleach fumes may be irritating to the eyes, nose and throat. Contact with the skin may cause a dermatitis. Ingestion can lead to oesophageal injury, stomach irritation, and prolonged nausea and vomiting.

Bleach should never be mixed with other cleaning solutions. When mixed with acids such as ammonia, toilet bowl cleaners, drain cleaners or even vinegar, it can release chloramine gas, leading to cough, voice loss, a feeling of burning and suffocation, and even death.

Spray cleaners are basically the same mix of chemicals as liquid cleaners, though often less concentrated. Although pump sprays don’t contain aerosols, they still produce a fine mist of chemicals that is easily inhaled and quick to enter the bloodstream. So, even though the product is less concentrated, you may inhale more chemicals. Amazingly, as a product that is mostly water, spray cleaners are more expensive to purchase than standard liquid formulas. Scouring powders and abrasive creams are a traditional standby for shifting greasy deposits in the kitchen and soapy scum in the bath. These products generally include strong bleaches or ammonia to make them work faster. When dried bleach mixes with water, it produces chlorine fumes, irritating to the eyes, nose, throat and lungs.

Dry powders contain crystalline silica, an eye, skin and lung irritant, and are carcinogenic when inhaled. It is all too easy to inhale silica particles when you sprinkle scouring powder in the sink or bath. Once inhaled, mineral powders whether talc, silica, feldspar or quartz lodge more or less permanently in the lungs.

Toilet cleaners and disinfectantsMany people think of the toilet bowl as the dirtiest part of the bathroom, but this is usually not so. Your toilet bowl has a constant flush of water running through it to keep it clean. Liquid toilet cleaners contain many dangerous ingredients. It is also well established that most household chemical accidents and poisonings occur in the bathroom.

The types of products available range from specialist cleaners (liquids and powders) to incistern and in the bowl devices that colour and fragrance the water as well as clean it. All are made from roughly the same ingredients, and the latter two are perhaps the most insidious as every time you flush, you release a microscopic spray of easily inhaled chemicals into the air.

Toilet bowl cleaners are so aggressive that you have to wonder whether any toilet really needs the amount of cleaning power typically provided.

Toilet bowl cleaners usually contain strong detergents which, in addition to cleaning power, also act as mild disinfectants. Quaternary ammonium compounds are typically used. Cationic detergents can be toxic and poisonous to ingest, cause nausea and, in extreme cases, coma. Cationics are also more easily absorbed by the skin, hence the recommended use of protective gloves and thorough rinsing should any of the product come into contact with the skin.

Sodium bisulphate when mixed with water creates sulphuric acid, which is highly toxic and corrosive to the skin and eyes. Its fumes are irritating to the airways, which is why adequate ventilation is vital when using toilet cleaners.

Oxalic acid can damage the kidneys and liver. It is irritating to the eyes and respiratory tract, and corrosive to the mouth and stomach.

Muriatic (hydrochloric) acid is a severe eye, skin and mucous membrane irritant. It is highly toxic when inhaled and, although full safety data are lacking, its effects are thought to be systemic.

5 Dimethyldantoin forms hypochlorite (bleach) when mixed with water which is corrosive to skin and mucous membranes.

Paradichlorobenzene (PDCB), a common insecticide, is used as a mildew control agent. It is irritating to the skin, eyes and throat, and known to cause liver damage in animals. Common symptoms of PDCB exposure include drowsiness, weakness, nausea and headaches.

Naphthalene is poisonous to humans and a potential carcinogen. It is a common pesticide, insecticide and fungicide, and is also used in the manufacture of lacquers and varnishes. It is irritating to the skin, eyes, mucous membranes and upper respiratory tract. Exposure can cause nausea, vomiting and profuse sweating.

Lye (sodium or potassium hydroxide) is a highly caustic substance that burns the skin and can cause blindness. Products containing bleach usually contain lye to improve stain removal.

If you must use conventional cleaners, make sure you put the lid down before flushing the toilet. That way, you won’t be sending a spray of chemicals into the air every time you flush.

Laundry products Detergents were first developed as a way for the petroleum industry to make money from their toxic waste, including propylene. Scientists eventually found a way to mix propylene with benzene to produce sulphuric acid, with added sodium hydroxide to neutralise this harmful acid. A sodium salt somewhat like ordinary soap was the result and hey presto!the detergent industry was born. Today’s detergents are still made largely from the waste materials generated by the petroleum industry.

Laundry detergents are a complex mixture of substances, including detergents/surfactants, enzymes, bleaches, brighteners, builders/water softeners (pH adjusters) and processing aids, corrosion inhibitors, antiredisposition agents and fragrances. Powdered varieties also contain fillers inert substances that keep the powder flowing freely. Some are as much as 50 per cent filler.

Detergents/surfactants. Detergents make the foam that lifts dirt from clothing; surfactants help the other ingredients, as well as the wash water, penetrate more deeply into the fabric. Both may contain carcinogenic impurities. Alkyl compounds are known pollutants. They are unlikely to be absorbed directly into your skin from washed clothes (though powders, if inhaled, can irritate the respiratory tract), but they threaten health by polluting groundwater supplies and reentering the food chain.

Bleaches such as sodium perborate and sodium percarbonate are an effective way to make whites look white. However, it is often used in such small amounts in laundry powders and liquids that it is not very effective (see below). In fact, bleaches don’t remove stains at all; instead, they make them invisible through a process called oxidation. Bleach can react with other chemicals in the mix, and let off vapours that can irritate the lungs. Bleach residues on your clothes can cause skin reactions as well as damage cloth fibres.

Brighteners belong to a family of compounds once used in food products like flour and sugar to make them look whiter. They have long since been banned for this purpose. Brighteners put a thin chemical film on your clothes that converts ultraviolet light to visible blue light, making clothes appear to be brighter. Brighteners can cause skin sensitisation and allergic reactions.

Phosphates are commonly used as builders/water softeners. They dissolve hardwater minerals and help increase the effectiveness of the detergent. They also act as antiredisposition agents (see below). Phosphates, while relatively non irritating, are an ecological disaster, responsible for the overgrowth of marine plants that choke waterways and kill other forms of marine life. While manufacturers argue that phosphates make detergents more economical, detergents with phosphates should be avoided. Other types of builders include polyphosphates, citrates, sodium carbonate (washing soda), sodium silicate and aluminosilicate (zeolite).

Antiredisposition agents, such as sodium carboxymethylcellulose, polyethylene glycol (PEG) and polyacrylates, stop dirt getting back into your clothes. PEGs can be contaminated with the carcinogen 1,4 dioxane.

Perfumes don’t do anything but smell nice, and are formulated to stay on your clothes. It can be a cause of skin and respiratory irritation, and may cause headaches and other neurological symptoms in some individuals.

Corrosion inhibitors such as sodium silicate protect the washing machine.

Processing aids help the main ingredients work more efficiently together. These can be builders such as phosphates and EDTA, or neurotoxic solvents like isopropyl alcohol, xylene sulphonate and sodium sulphate. Laundry detergents sometimes contain disinfectants such as pine oil, which is highly irritating and may cause allergic reactions, and phenolics and coaltar derivatives, which are carcinogenic. Liquid detergents may contain extra ingredients such as opacifiers to make them look nice, but do not help clean your clothes, and synthetic colours. Liquid detergents contain no filler at all and are more concentrated than powders. Otherwise, there is no difference between types of laundry detergents. Liquids do not clean better, they don’t get into the wash quicker or penetrate fabrics more efficiently. They are just a variation on a theme. Fabric softenersFabric softeners are made from mild detergents and cationic surfactants such as quaternary ammonium compounds. Their strong positive charge is designed to stick to negatively charged wet fabric and form a uniform, positively charged layer on the fabric surface, making it feel softer to the touch (an excess negative charge causes a scratchy feeling after washing and static cling). Cationic surfactants are also used in products that boast of fabric softening properties.

Fabric softening sheets release a special resin in the dryer, leaving a waxy coating on clothes to make them feel softer. Along with surfactants and resins, fabric softeners deposit a range of other chemicals onto your clothes as well. According to a report by the US Environmental Protection Agency, fabric softeners and dryer sheets contain an enormous number of potentially toxic chemicals. Among them:

Alpha terpineol, highly irritating to mucous membranes, can also cause excitement, ataxia (loss of muscular co-ordination), hypothermia, CNS and respiratory depression, and headache. Repeated or prolonged skin contact is not advised.

Benzyl acetate, a carcinogen linked to pancreatic cancer, gives off vapours irritating to the eyes and respiratory passages, and may cause coughing. It can be absorbed through the skin, causing systemic effects.

Benzyl alcohol is irritating to the upper respiratory tract and can cause headache, nausea, vomiting, dizziness, drop in blood pressure, CNS depression and, in rare cases, death due to respiratory failure.

Camphor is on the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) hazardous waste list. It is readily absorbed through body tissues; vapours and inhalation can irritate the eyes, nose and throat. It is a CNS stimulant associated with dizziness, confusion, nausea, twitching muscles and convulsions.

Chloroform, also on the EPA hazardous waste list, is a neurotoxin, an aesthetic and carcinogen. Inhalation of vapours may cause headache, nausea, vomiting, dizziness, drowsiness, irritation of respiratory tract and loss of consciousness. Chronic effects of overexposure include kidney and/or liver damage. Its use can aggravate medical conditions such as kidney disorders, liver disorders, heart disorders, skin disorders.

Ethyl acetate, also on the EPA hazardous waste list, can be irritating to the eyes and respiratory tract. It is a narcotic, and exposure may cause headache and narcosis (stupor). It has been linked to anaemia with leukocytosis (increased white blood cells in an immune system reaction), and damage to the liver and kidneys.

Limonene, a carcinogen and irritant to the skin and eyes, may cause allergic reactions.

Linalool, a narcotic shown to cause CNS disorders and, in animals, to adversely affect mood, muscle coordination and spontaneous motor activity. Exposure can cause fatal respiratory disturbances. It even attracts bees (thus posing a threat to those who are allergic to beestings).

Pentane, an irritant to the eyes, can cause skin rash. Its vapours may cause headache, nausea, vomiting, dizziness, drowsiness, irritation of the respiratory tract and loss of consciousness. Prolonged and repeated inhalation of vapours may cause depression. Taking control of the chemicals in your home allows you to reduce the toxic burden on your system. It is also good for your mind and soul. Being familiar with the chemicals in everyday products puts you in control of what you spend your money on. It also gives you a certain amount of control over your own destiny.

!APat Thomas

By special arrangement with the publishers, WDDTY readers can purchase copies of Cleaning Yourself to Death at a discount price of £7.99 (incl p&p) by calling Gill & Macmillan’s orderline (tel: 00 353 1 500 9500).

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