The necessity of a clean home and the use of chemical-laced cleaners is often at odds with our own health and that of the environment. The effects of chemical buildup in the air, water, and our bodies has become its own epidemic. The average US household accumulates up to 100 pounds of hazardous household waste, including cleaning products, paints, oils, batteries, and pesticides. Additionally, it is estimated that each American household contains 63 synthetic chemical products, adding up to roughly 10 gallons of harmful cleaning products and pesticides. Inside our homes, as a result of these harmful chemicals, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) suggests the air can be two to five times more polluted than the outside air, and in extreme cases the level can reach 100 times that of the outside contamination rate.
Chemical cleaners pollute water and harm wildlife
Conventional household cleaners often contain chemical cleaning agents like alkylphenol ethoxylates (APEs), which do not easily break down in sewage treatment after they are washed down the drain. APEs are among the most widely used groups of surfactants, with about half a million tons produced annually worldwide. The EPA has identified APEs as endocrine disrupters, which can affect the reproductive systems of birds and mammals and disrupt the ability of some fish to reproduce. Measurable levels of APEs and other cleaning product chemicals have been found in US lakes and streams. A 2002 US Geological Survey (USGS) study of contaminants in American stream water found 69 percent of streams sampled contained traces of detergents, while 66 percent contained disinfectants.
Household hazardous waste
The EPA lists drain cleaners, toilet cleaners, bleach, and shower cleaners on its list of common household items containing potentially hazardous ingredients. If these products are improperly disposed of—including pouring them down the drain or toilet or putting them out with the trash—they are considered to be household hazardous waste (HHW). Americans generate 1.6 million tons of HHW per year, which pollutes the environment and threatens human health. The EPA recommends carefully monitoring the use, storage, and disposal of potentially hazardous substances in order to avoid the potential risks associated with HHW. Such products should be kept in their original containers and their labels should be consulted for instructions on proper disposal. Your local environmental, health, or solid waste agency can also give instructions on proper use and disposal of HHW products and provide information about local HHW drop-off programs and upcoming collection days.
Related health issues
Products for household cleaning and maintenance that contain chemical solvents negatively affect indoor air quality in the home. Nitrobenzene, found in floor cleaners and polishes, can cause skin discoloration, difficulty breathing, vomiting, and is associated with cancer and birth defects. Floor cleaners also contain petroleum solvents that can damage mucous membranes. Nonylphenol ethoxylate, found in some all-purpose cleaners, is shown to biodegrade into compounds that are even more toxic than the original form.
In addition to the long-term health risks to wildlife and humans posed by chemicals in the environment, chemical household cleaners are responsible for many poisonings. According to the National Capital Poison Center, 89 percent of all poison exposures occur in the home, and most poisonings involve everyday household items, such as cleaning supplies, medicines, cosmetics, and personal care items.
Indoor air quality
Industrial strength cleaners used in commercial settings can threaten employee health. The cleaning of commercial buildings requires 6 billion pounds of chemicals every year. Of the 3.5 million cleaning employees in the US, 6 percent experience an injury related to chemical exposure annually. Commercial cleaning products emit Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and particulate matter that contribute to poor indoor air quality. The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) cites indoor air pollution as one of the top five public health threats in America. In a recent study, the Berkeley National Laboratory concluded that 40 percent of all office sick days are related to poor indoor air quality (IAQ). Their findings suggest that improved IAQ could increase productivity and reduce the occurrence of Sick Building Syndrome by 20 to 50 percent, with potential savings between $10 and $100 billion nationwide annually.
Very few buildings in the US are free from poor IAQ, and since adults spend up to 90 percent of their time indoors, the term Sick Building Syndrome (SBS) is being volleyed around with increasing frequency. SBS (alternately referred to as Tight Building Syndrome (TBS), Building-Related Illness (BRI), and Multiple Chemical Sensitivities (MCS) occurs when a building’s occupants exhibit illnesses such as dry, irritated eyes, nose, throat, and skin; fatigue; shortness of breath, coughing, and sneezing; dizziness and nausea; as well as headache and sinus congestion.
- particulate matter (PM): A mixture of dry solid fragments, solid cores with liquid coatings, and small droplets of liquid of varying shape, size, and chemical composition that pollute the air.
- Poor Indoor Air Quality (IAQ): The result of mounting air pollution, both inside and out, from substances which are either biological or chemical.
- surfactants: A material that can greatly reduce the surface tension of water when used in very low concentrations.
- volatile organic compounds (VOCs): Gases released by a wide variety of products, including cleaning products, furniture, and dry-cleaned clothing,that cause several health problems, ranging from headaches and respiratory inflammation to central nervous system diseases.
- Washington Toxics Coalition - Cleaning Products
- Washington Toxics Coalition - FastFacts
- TreeHugger - How to Green Your Cleaning
- GreenSeal - Certified Cleaning Products
- Thrifty Fun - Poisons Under Your Sink: Hidden Dangers of Cleaning Products
- Worldwatch Institute: Good Stuff? - Cleaning Products
- US Environmental Protection Agency - Household Hazardous Waste
- TreeHugger - How to Green Your Cleaning: By The Numbers
- Worldwatch Institute - Good Stuff? Cleaning Products
- Environmental Science and Technology - European Bans on Surfactant Trigger Transatlantic Debate
- Worldwatch Institute - Good Stuff?: Cleaning Products
- US Environmental Protection Agency - Household Hazardous Waste
- National Capital Poison Center - Poison Exposures in the United States
- Commonwealth of Massachusetts - EPP Buyer Update Current and Past Issues: Volume 10 January 2005 (this is a text file that will open as a separate file)
- CleanLink - Turning Clean into Green
- The Green Guide - Air cleaning houseplants
- Environmental Energy Technologies Division - Estimates of Potential Nationwide Productivity and Health Benefits From Better Indoor Environments: An Update