by guest blogger Lisa Bronner, writer of the blog Going Green with a Bronner Mom
I pitied the solicitor who knocked on my door selling a “green cleaner.”
Me: What’s it made out of?
Him: All-natural ingredients!
Me: Like what?
Him: Completely biodegradable surfactants!
Me: Made from what?
Him: I’m not sure, but they’re all-natural! See how safe it is?
He proceeded to stick his finger in it and lick it.
Me (gasping): Don’t do that! You don’t know what’s in there!
I got a little worked up, much to his astonishment. I didn’t know what his cleaner was made out of, and neither did he. Finding out that information can be a challenge. There are no requirements for ingredient disclosure on cleaning products, and this company didn’t supply them voluntarily, other than with the ambiguous description “100% plant-based surfactants.”
How can we be so comfortable not knowing what’s in the cleaning products we bring into our homes and expose our bodies and those of our families to? His sales line relied upon my believing a certain number of popular cleaning-product myths, and it’s time those myths get busted.
Myth 1: Ingredients are disclosed on cleaning products
By in large, they’re not. Go look. Vague terms like “surfactant,” “solvent,” or “preservative” don’t count. Consider if that preservative is, say, methylisothiazolinone; that means we’re being exposed to an irritant, allergen, and sensitizer. Mehylisothiazolinone is found in hundreds of products. “Preservative” sounds so much nicer, but in fact, such pseudo disclosure is worse because it’s an attempt by manufacturers to placate us while revealing absolutely nothing. The ingredients could be benign, or they could be hazardous. But if they were fine, wouldn’t the manufacturer want us to know?
Myth 2: Natural = Good
Clearly my salesman had been fed a party line. Some unscrupulous manufacturer had adopted the definition of “natural” as any substance that is taken from the earth. Many of us consumers happily accept the popular misconception that natural = good. By this definition, petroleum is natural.
The long and short of it is, when it comes to product labeling, “natural” means nothing. It does not mean “safe.” It does not mean “good for you.” It doesn’t even mean “good for the environment.”
And while we’re on the subject of meaningless terms, “biodegradable” and “organic” (unless accompanied by the green-and-white USDA Organic seal) are other unchecked and undefined terms anyone can throw on a household cleaner label. Furthermore, packaging that is brown, green, matte, or in some other way “natural looking” is no guarantee that the product inside is any more healthful.
The only labeling that legitimately provides reassurance is the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Organic seal, ECOLOGO, Green Seal, and the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA’s) Safer Choice seal.
Myth 3: “Plant-based” = Good
Indisputably, many plants can cause harm all by themselves, such as poison ivy. But even more insidious are harmful ingredients that are synthesized from plants and put in household cleaners. The lovely sounding “coconut-derived surfactant” may be no more than a greenwashed cover for sodium laureth sulfate, or SLES. This ubiquitous surfactant is often contaminated with the stowaway carcinogenic by-product 1,4-dioxane.
“Plant-based” can describe safe ingredients, but unless you know what plants and which ingredients, it’s not enough information.
Myth 4: What I use to clean my house doesn’t affect my health
Even when taking precautions, such as wearing gloves, we are being exposed to the cleaning products we use through inhalation and via their residue. Research suggests that 53 percent of cleaners contain ingredients that are known to harm the lungs. Any cleaner that’s sprayed or contains volatile organic compounds (VOCs) lingers in the air and affects anyone who breathes it. It’s been shown that 22 percent of cleaners worsen asthma or trigger asthma in previously healthy individuals. Chlorine bleach, in particular, commonly causes respiratory damage and irritation, and increases of obstructive lung disease have been documented in those who clean houses professionally.
There are a staggering number of accidents stemming from household cleaners, too. Poison Control received more than 118,000 phone calls in 2014 for accidental exposure to household cleaners in children under age 6. Those kids’ parents and caregivers didn’t mean for that to happen, but it did. Kids get into things and horrible accidents happen.
Of the 10,308 kids under age 6 requiring medical treatment in 2006 because of unintentional exposure to household cleaners, 744 experienced life-threatening symptoms or were left with significant long-term disability. Twenty-eight of them died. Chlorine bleach was the culprit in 37 percent of these situations, and more than 40 percent of the cases stemmed from use of products in spray bottles.
The convenience of these cleaning products is not worth that kind of risk.
Myth 5: The government wouldn’t let us be exposed to anything bad
Household cleaners do not specifically fall under the jurisdiction of any one government agency. The Food and Drug Administration? Cleaning products aren’t a food or a drug. USDA? Household cleaners aren’t part of agriculture. EPA? Surprisingly, not much. And so, cleaning-product manufacturers proceed blithely on their merry way. Nobody is watching.
But there’s hope on the horizon. Many states have introduced bills that would require labeling, and one bill was introduced federally. In 2011 and again in 2014, Rep. Steve Israel (D–N.Y.) authored H.R. 3457 (112th): Cleaning Product Right to Know Act. No action was taken. This past year in California, AB-708, the Cleaning Products Disclosure Bill, was narrowly voted down. These types of bills will come up again; but they will only succeed and be passed into law with support from consumers who want to know exactly what they’re buying.
Myth 6: Cleaning product manufacturers wouldn’t do that to us
Think about what makes a consumer buy a cleaning product. Is it effective? Yes, that soap scum cutter indeed does cut the scum. Is it fast? Yes, it works in seconds and kills mold, too. Is it effortless? Yes, with little to no scrubbing required. If “effective,” “fast,” and “easy” are the features we’re looking for, where does that leave “safe”?
Manufacturers’ priorities are not your priorities. If they can get you to buy their products with the greatest profit to themselves, they’ve met their goal.
Myth 7: Household cleaners can’t be that bad
Formaldehyde is classified as a known human carcinogen by the U.S. government and the World Health Organization. It also is a sensitizer, which means it brings on allergies. Other ingredients, such as quaternium compounds (commonly found in shampoos) can also produce formaldehyde spontaneously. So, even if it wasn’t specifically added to a formulation, it can develop. The Environmental Working Group (EWG) gives formaldehyde an “F” for safety. Despite all this, it’s a main ingredient in 18 popular cleaning products listed in the EWG’s Hall of Shame. Some of these 18 products are marketed as being very safe.
The ingredient “fragrance” or “parfum” is another toxic soup. On their own, these proprietary scent mixes can contribute any number of more than 3,000 different chemicals to the unlisted ingredients in a product. Hiding within the proprietary term “fragrance” can be phthalates, which hinder reproductive development in boys. Various “fragrance” blends also rank in the top 5 allergens in the world.
If you’re overwhelmed by all of this, an easy place to start looking is product warning labels. If a household cleaner says “poison,” “danger,” or “fatal” if swallowed or inhaled—or the even more astounding “suspected of damaging the unborn child,”—it’s best to steer well clear.
Myth 8: There’s nothing I can do about it
You can take the safety of the cleaning products you use in your home into your own hands. To educate yourself, read the Environmental Working Group’s Guide to Healthy Cleaning and Decoding the Labels. Look for and read ingredient lists. Buy from companies that disclose and use good ingredients. Support legislation for ingredient disclosure by contacting your local representative when a bill is introduced. Simplify your cleaning regimen and green-it-yourself with organic, basic ingredients. Tried-and-true better options include soap and water, vinegar, and baking soda. These can take care of the vast majority of household cleaning.
You need to know to what you’re exposing yourself and your household as you clean. It’s your right to defend your health.
Lisa Bronner is the writer of the blog Going Green with a Bronner Mom, in connection with her family’s company, Dr. Bronner’s, makers of best-selling organic personal care products. Through her writing and public speaking, Lisa guides consumers through the quagmire of the organic marketplace and simplifies the process of green living at home. Embracing the concept of stewardship, she recognizes individuals’ ability to make a world of difference by how they live their every day. A stay-at-home mom to three, she believes that regularly gathering with them around the family dinner table is the single most important parenting act in her day.