Photo: Green Cleaning Supplies

by Tracy Rohland

Everyone appreciates a clean home. We scrub and spray and wash using many different products to achieve a sparkling environment. However, while we may be getting rid of mold and dirt, we might also be expelling a plethora of toxic gases and contaminants into our home and our bodies, many of which can eventually make their way into the soil and water of the earth.

Conventional cleaners are labeled with warnings such as “Danger: Corrosive,” “Hazards to humans and domestic animals,” “Keep out of reach of children,” “Do not take internally,” “Flammable” and many other equally intimidating phrases. The chemicals in these conventional cleaners can cause immediate problems such as skin or respiratory irritation, watery eyes, or chemical burns as well as long-term or chronic problems such as cancer. In 2000, cleaning products were responsible for nearly 10% of all toxic exposures reported to U.S. Poison Control Centers, accounting for 206,636 calls. Of these, 120,434 exposures involved children under six, who can swallow or spill cleaners stored or left open inside the home.1 And alarmingly, laboratory tests commissioned by Environmental Working Group have detected 232 industrial chemicals and pollutants found in the umbilical cord blood of newborns.2

To make matters worse, any chemicals that are poured down the drain end up at the sewage treatment plant and are subsequently released into nearby streams. Many of these chemicals are rendered harmless in the treatment process, but some maintain their toxic properties and end up contaminating our waterways. In a May 2002 study of contaminants in stream water samples across the country, the U.S. Geological Survey found persistent detergent metabolites in 69% of streams tested. Sixty-six percent contained disinfectants.1

The good news is that there are many safe alternatives to commercial cleaning products. You can replace conventional laundry detergents, which are usually filled with petrochemicals, perfumes and dyes, with natural biodegradable ones. Look for natural, ammonia-free window cleaners, natural toilet bowl cleaners, stain removers, etc. Get rid of any aerosol sprays as they release tiny chemical particles into the air that are easily inhaled. Down to Earth carries a wide variety of non-toxic cleaning products for all your household cleaning chores. From toilets to tubs, to dishes and windows, many great products can be found that are human and earth-friendly.

In general, read labels on products, especially the warning labels. Avoid those that state things like "Danger," "Poison," "Corrosive" or "May cause burns." Look for specific claims about human and environmental safety such as “no phosphates,” or “Biodegradable in 3 to 5 days.” These claims are stronger than generic terms like “Natural,”or “Biodegradable.” Because companies are not required to disclose all ingredients on cleaning products, it may take some investigating if you want to find out what is really in a particular product. The Environmental Working Group recommends avoiding these 7 ingredients above all:3

  • Butoxyethanol (or ethylene glycol monobutyl ether) and other glycol ethers
  • Alkylphenol ethoxylates (some common ones are: nonyl- and octylphenol ethoxylates, or non- and octoxynols)
  • Dye (companies often hide chemical information behind this word; when it's unknown, it's safer to skip it)
  • Ethanolamines (common ones to look out for are: mono-, di-, and tri-ethanolamine)
  • Fragrance
  • Pine or citrus oil (on smoggy or high ozone days, compounds in the oils can react with ozone in the air to form the carcinogenic chemical formaldehyde)
  • Quaternary ammonium compounds (look out for these: alkyl dimethyl benzyl ammonium chloride (ADBAC), benzalkonium chloride, and didecyl dimethyl benzyl ammonium chloride)

You can also stock up on a few basic ingredients that can be kept on hand for all types of cleaning jobs: baking soda, vinegar, lemon juice, borax, and a coarse scrubbing sponge can take care of most household cleaning needs. Following are a few homemade-cleaning ideas from the Worldwatch Institute:

  • Instead of using a standard drain cleaner, which likely contains lye, hydrochloric acid, and sulfuric acid, try pouring a quarter cup of baking soda down the clogged drain, followed by a half cup of vinegar. Close the drain tightly until fizzing stops, then flush with boiling water.
  • For an effective glass cleaner, use a mixture of half white vinegar and half water.
  • Baking soda and cornstarch are both good carpet deodorizers.
  • To clean up mildew and mold, use a mixture of lemon juice or white vinegar and salt.
  • A paste of baking soda, salt, and hot water makes a great oven cleaner.

In the rare instance you need to use a hazardous product, use as little as possible and dispose of it in a way that will cause minimum harm—for example, by taking it to a hazardous waste recycling or treatment center.