They’re stashed in our closets and under our sinks — but are chemical cleaning products safe? Carole Hall, owner of Shop and Clean 123, a green house-cleaning service in Asheville, says she’s had adverse reactions from using them. And some scientific studies have found increased health problems among cleaning workers who come in regular contact with them.
Hall says she turned to green cleaning products after she saw what harsh chemicals seemed to be doing to her. “I’ve had to rinse my eyes out because they were burning. I’ve found remnants of cleaning products on my clothing and shoes — and then noticed my shoes started falling apart,” she says. “A product tarnishes the metal in a client’s bathroom — and I’m going to be breathing that?” she asks.
Many household cleaning products can be harmful, according to the article “Cleaning Supplies and Household Chemicals,” found on the American Lung Association’s website. “Many cleaning supplies or household products can irritate the eyes or throat, or cause headaches and other health problems, including cancer. Some products release dangerous chemicals, including volatile organic compounds [that] … contribute to chronic respiratory problems, allergic reactions and headaches.” The article also says that “past studies link exposure to chemicals from cleaning supplies to occupational asthma and other respiratory illnesses.”
A 2018 study in Norway published in the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine that looked at the effects of cleaning agents on respiratory health found that “women cleaning at home or working as occupational cleaners had accelerated decline in lung function, suggesting that exposures related to cleaning activities may constitute a risk to long-term respiratory health.”
“There are lots of different chemicals out there that we are exposed to every day in cleaning products,” says Greene Shepherd, doctor of pharmacy, professor at UNC Asheville’s Eshelman School of Pharmacy and diplomate of the American Board of Applied Toxicology. “Even if you go with a brand name like Clorox, there are literally hundreds of different versions of Clorox products. It’s hard to know [what is in the product] until you look at the label and see exactly what you are dealing with.
Bleach is “not terribly dangerous by itself,” he says. The danger with bleach occurs when you mix bleach with certain products like ammonia, he notes. When that happens, “you can release chlorine gas. In a tightly enclosed space that is poorly ventilated, you can inhale that in and those can be rather irritating to the respiratory tract.”
“The majority of most of the liquid cleaners is water,” explains Shepherd, “and then a small percentage of active ingredient chemicals.”
The Environmental Protection Agency’s green products purchasing guide cautions consumers to pay attention to those active ingredient chemicals. “Certain ingredients in cleaning products can present hazard concerns to exposed populations (e.g., skin and eye irritation in workers). … For example, alkylphenol ethoxylates, a common surfactant ingredient in cleaners, have been shown in laboratory studies to function as an ‘endocrine disrupter,’ causing adverse reproductive effects of the types seen in wildlife exposed to polluted waters,” the guide says.
And reproductive effects are evident in the babies of women who work as janitors or cleaners, according to a study published in the International Journal of Hygiene and Environmental Health. The babies born to that group had higher incidents of oral clefts; defects of the brain, spine or spinal cord (neural tube defects); spina bifida; and other birth defects.
Leslie Ellis, owner of Green Home Cleaning, an Asheville-based home cleaning service, worked in the bed-and-breakfast industry, where she cleaned with traditional products for more than 12 years. Her knuckles would crack and bleed in the wintertime, she recalls, and she’d sometimes feel lightheaded when cleaning in a poorly ventilated bathroom. “If you read the directions on a bottle of bleach, they instruct you to open a window when using the product,” says Ellis. Eventually she struck out on her own and began to use nontoxic cleaning supplies.
Amanda Bullivant, along with her business partner Loren Carty, owns GreenBee Cleaning Co., a residential and commercial cleaning company that uses all-natural cleaning products. “When you’re using commercial cleaning products and breathing them in, you feel it immediately,” says Bullivant, who experienced chest constrictions and skin irritation when she used them.
Bullivant stresses that it’s important for people to listen to their bodies when it comes to cleaning products. “If you use a product and you notice that it’s hurting your lungs or it smells for a long time, it’s a good indication that it’s not good for you, your family or your pets,” she says.
Hall says she uses green cleaning products because of the effects that commercial cleaning products have on the environment too. “I think of everything that I’m rinsing down into the pipes that is going into our drinking water,” she says. “Everything that we flush or rinse, we’re taking it back in again.”
Shepherd points out that when you use products like vinegar and baking soda, “you’ve got a better idea of what you are actually using.” But he says the everyday household cleaning supplies purchased from the grocery store don’t bother him. “I don’t lose sleep over using commercially available products that you can buy in any grocery store. I use them in my own home.”
Missing from the label
One of the reasons that household cleaning products can be so dangerous is that we don’t really know what’s inside them, says consumer advocate Sloan Barnett in a 2018 interview posted on the Scientific American website (avl.mx/4tm). That’s because they aren’t regulated in the same way as food is in the U.S., Barnett says. Although the Environmental Protection Agency, which regulates cleaning products, requires products to list “chemicals of known concern,” she says, companies aren’t required by law to list all their ingredients on the label.
Products with incomplete lists of ingredients worry Hall. “You’re spraying it, breathing it in, getting it on your skin, and it doesn’t even tell you what’s in it,” she says.
Fragrances, which give each cleaning product its “clean” smell, are also an unknown factor. “In the industry, you don’t have to disclose what your fragrances are,” explains Carty, who makes and sells her own line of cleaning products. The reason for this, according to an article posted on Physicians for Social Responsibility’s website, is that fragrances are considered trade secrets, so the chemicals in them are not required to be shared with researchers, consumers or regulators. “All you have to say is that your product contains fragrance,” says Carty.
Household cleaning products “do have to undergo some safety testing,” but they are not tested on humans the way pharmaceutical products are with control trials, says Shepherd. They are only tested in the lab, where “we find there is no overt risk of chemical reactions in the average person. If you’ve got a respiratory disease like asthma or COPD [chronic obstructive pulmonary disease] or some other lung function problem, then you would be at greater risk.”
Carty points out that terms such as “natural” and “eco-friendly” shouldn’t be equated with safety unless they’re backed up with specific information such as “solvent-free,” “no petroleum-based ingredients” or “no phosphates.” “There are a lot of unregulated green-washing terms out there,” she says, adding that she avoids any cleaning product marked “danger” or “poison,” as well as any that are labeled as corrosive or causing burns.
So if many off-the-shelf cleaning products pose potential dangers, what’s a clean freak to do? “I clean with the stuff our grandmothers used,” says Ellis, citing vinegar for cleaning windows, baking soda as a mild abrasive, borax and Castile soap. “They’re simple ingredients that are pretty inexpensive.”
Hall cleans with an essential oil product called Thieves — a mix of clove, cinnamon, lemon, eucalyptus and rosemary. “It has antibacterial properties,” she says, “and it’s very eco-friendly and nonhazardous to the person using it.”
The women of GreenBee Cleaning Co. use the same basic arsenal. “All you really need is baking soda, vinegar and an all-purpose soap,” says Carty. She points out that it’s a myth that each space in our house — floors, bathrooms, countertops and windows — needs its own cleaning product. “It’s so overmarketed,” she says.
Carty also points out that it’s not the products that make a house shine but the cleaning tools used. She says you don’t need a harsh chemical to clean a bathtub — just a baking soda paste and a rigid brush. “We use steel wool, toothbrushes and sponges,” she adds. “We use essential oils too, but we use them at the end of the process to make the whole house smell amazing.”
Now that Ellis uses natural cleaning products, she says she doesn’t suffer the bloody hands and lightheadedness that she did when using commercial cleaning products. “I don’t have problems with natural products,” she says.
Shop and Clean 123
Green Home Cleaning
GreenBee Cleaning Co.