Every Monday, Mary cleans my house. Middle-aged, Mary has heart trouble. When she cleans the bathroom, the chemical fumes are so harsh that she has to crack the window just to breathe.
As this winter’s harsh wind blew through that window, I started to consider the correlation. Could her medical troubles be linked to the cleaning products she uses daily?
Then I thought about how we stay cooped inside all winter (and a good part of the steaming summer, with air conditioning blasting and windows shut) and how we flush chemicals down the toilet and sinks, through the dishwasher and washing machine. I decided to find out what we are doing to our bodies and our environment.
What I found was alarming. Traditional cleaning products are considered poisonous and have been dubbed cancer-causing, according to a World Health Organization 1997 study. That study revealed that 80 percent of cancer cases in the 21st Century will be attributable to environmental factors.
The Environmental Protection Agency reported that toxic chemicals in today’s homes are three times more likely to cause cancer than any outdoor airborne pollutants.
“Many household consumer products contain chemicals that, if they were found outdoors, would be classified as hazardous air pollutants,” said Richard L. Corsi, civil engineering professor at the University of Texas at Austin. “The average American spends nearly 18 hours inside for every hour spent outdoors.”
After Mary cleans my bathroom, I smell chlorinated cleaners for a day and a half. The first person to use the bathtub after she cleans is my 10-month-old son, and I worry what he might be bathing in.
The primary reason consumers toss typical products and start buying organic is children, according to Sona Rejebian, marketing manager for Earth Friendly Products, a Winnetka-based company that produces non-toxic cleaners.
“All of a sudden, people get aware of all the chemicals in their homes,” says Rejebian. “Kids are a great motivation factor.”
As natural markets such as Wild Oats, Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s abound, healthy cleaning products are readily available and affordable. The key is density; most alternative brands, including Earth Friendly…are diluted, so a little goes a long way.
Sure, it’s easier to buy bulk, but you won’t likely find environmentally friendly cleaners at wholesale clubs. So companies are out to educate. They figure that if consumers know what they’re getting into, they’ll get into something healthier.
Earth Friendly Products…getting onto the education bandwagon. The company started making cleaner products when John E. Vlahakis, the son of the company’s immigrant founder, had kids and realized the dangers of frequently used chemicals. They are hoping to establish educational programs in the Chicago area. “The more people know, they can make a better judgment,” says Rejebian.
Most cleaning products release volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which create ozone and smog. Cleaning products contribute about 8 percent of non-vehicle VOC emissions, according to Clean Air Counts, a Chicago-based awareness initiative.
Major cleaning brands are made with a petroleum base whereas environmentally friendly products are composed of vegetable compounds. Even the mere vapors of ammonia- and chlorinebased cleaners can be dangerous, according to Minnesota-based Midwest Natural Foods Coop.
EPA research found that the country’s worst air pollution is inside individual homes. For that reason, the agency considers indoor, invisible air pollution one of the five most urgent environmental problems facing the country today.
One great danger is the compounds created when these chemicals react. For instance, Corsi found that dishwasher and laundry detergents, when run through the hot-water cycle, create chloroform. That toxin is then released into the air via the dishwasher vent, for example, and it’s what we inhale when we open the just-done machine to check the dishes and are engulfed in a puff of steam.
Of course, alternative products aren’t perfect. Recent research found terpenes in healthy cleaners, says Corsi. These create favorable scents like pine or lemon. But while they may smell good, ozone reacts with terpenes and creates byproducts, “some of which are, at the very least, irritating to eyes, upper respiratory.” Small particles are created at “just the right size to negotiate deep into your lungs, which is never a good thing,” adds Corsi.
So it may be a case of the lesser of two evils.
Still, with all the statistics that I found about cleaning chemicals, I started to worry not only about Mary, but about all of us…
The way to maintain a healthy house is to “eliminate as many toxins as possible from the building process and then to seal the house tightly and ventilate it mechanically so you get numerous changes of air each hour,” according to New Mexico-based eco-architect Paula Baker-Laporte in a recent Organic Style magazine article.
As more information comes on the market, more consumers are stepping up to the environmentally friendly plate.
The notion that unless you smell ammonia or chlorine, nothing is clean, is, gradually, fading, says Rejebian.
“Ideas are shifting. My cleaning lady loves coming to our house,” reports Rejebian. “She says, ‘It’s the only house I come to where I don’t cough and sneeze, and my eyes don’t water’.”
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