What’s the big deal?
South Africans spend more than R500 million on household cleaning products in a year. We buy these products to fight germs, streaks, stains and odours to keep our homes sparkling clean. Cleaning is supposed to be about maintaining a healthy home, yet some common household cleaning products contain chemicals that can harm human health and the environment.
Look on just about any cleaning product and you will notice a lack of an ingredient list. Could it be because so many have ingredients that are toxic? Below is a short list of harmful ingredients that are in many household cleaners and are of particular concern because they are carcinogens, endocrine disrupters or known or suspected reproductive toxins.
Potentially harmful ingredients:
Irritation to eyes and mucous membranes. Breathing difficulty, wheezing, chest pains, pulmonary edema, skin burns.
1,4 dichlorobenzene (1,4 DCB)
Has been linked to a reduction in pulmonary function. Found in space deodorizing products, such as room fresheners, urinal cakes, toilet bowl fresheners and cleaning products.
Ethoxylated nonyl phenols (NPEs)
Known as “gender-benders,” nonyl phenols can induce female characteristics in male fish, for example. The threat posed to the environment by nonyl phenols prompted the European Union to ban them from all cleaning products manufactured or used in the EU. Still used in other countries around the world.
Made from finely ground quartz, silica is carcinogenic as a fine respirable dust. Silica is found in that form in some abrasive cleansers, which are often used on a regular basis around the home.
Trisodium nitrilotriacetate (NTA)
NTA is listed as a possible human carcinogen by the International Agency for Research on Cancer. It is used as a builder in laundry detergents and also has an adverse environmental impact as it can impede the elimination of metals in wastewater treatment plants. NTA’s action can cause metals that have already settled out to be re-mobilized back into the liquid waste stream.
Bleach (Sodium hypochlorite)
When bleach is mixed with acids (typically found in toilet bowl cleaners), it reacts with them to form chlorine gas. When it is mixed with ammonia, it can create chloramine gas, another toxic substance.
In the environment, sodium hypochlorite is acutely toxic to fish. The chlorine in bleach can also bind with organic material in the marine environment to form organochlorines, toxic compounds that can persist in the environment.
There may be some circumstances where bleach use is necessary for disease control, but there is little need for it on a regular basis. Tests have shown that washing counters and other surfaces with soap and water removes most bacteria and there are a number of oxygen-based alternatives for laundry uses of bleach.
Manufacturers have since reduced or even eliminated phosphates from laundry products, but no action has ever been taken on dishwasher detergents. Most of the products available from major manufacturers contain 30-40 per cent phosphates. Some also contain high levels of chlorine-based sanitizing ingredients.
More than 3000 chemicals are used in fragrance mixtures. Many are irritants and can trigger allergies, migraines, and asthma symptoms. In addition, synthetic musks used in detergents build up in the environment and can be toxic to aquatic organisms. Certain synthetic musks are also suspected endocrine disrupters that mimic or interfere with the function of hormones. Phthalates are another common fragrance ingredient in products such as laundry detergents, fabric softeners and deodorizers. Glass cleaners and floor polishes have also been found to contain dibutyl phthalate (DBP). Phthalates are suspected endocrine disrupters associated with reproductive effects, including reduced sperm count in men.
Air fresheners contain a potpourri of fragrance chemicals, in some cases including cancer-causing benzene and formaldehyde, as well as phthalates and numerous VOCs.