Ads boast that daily housework has been revolutionized thanks to the latest cleaning products. So we assume that the products on the market are safe for our health and the planet. In reality, many contain an array of potentially harmful ingredients. According to a recent Norwegian study involving 6,230 participants—published in the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine1—daily exposure to certain household cleaning products can cause respiratory problems comparable to those associated with cigarette smoking.
The study demonstrated that after several decades, the lung capacity of women using cleaning products on a daily basis (either at home or working as cleaners) was significantly affected. While reduced lung function is to be expected with age, it was much higher in the study subjects, the equivalent of having smoked one to two packs of cigarettes per day for 20 years!
How is that possible?
Simple. Think of all the cleaning products we use in our homes: surface cleaner, glass cleaner, kitchen cleaner, floor cleaner, disinfectant, toilet bowl cleaner, laundry detergent, fabric softener, stain remover, air freshener… It adds up! A large number of cleaning products contain volatile organic compounds (VOCs), atmospheric emissions in gas form composed of carbon and hydrogen2. When you spray your windows with a cleaner, for example, the VOCs in the product spread through the air you are breathing, which can cause health problems over time.
Besides VOCs, the various ingredients could also impact your health. Most cleaning products contain surfactants: cleaning agents that separate grease from water. They are often contaminated with Ethylene Exide3and 1,4-Dioxane4, substances that the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) considers carcinogenic. Other ingredients like Triclosan and DMDM Hydantoin, antibacterial agents and disinfectants that contain carcinogens, are considered to be of concern5. Knowing that the average home contains around 62 toxic chemicals6 and that we spend most of our time indoors7, the problem is a very real one.
What do the manufacturers say about this?
Most manufacturers claim that the ingredients are not necessarily problematic in small quantities. However, researchers want to know the health risks associated with daily exposure even at low doses, and their interaction with other products and their ingredients. There are few studies exploring this at the moment. We all know that some products can cause immediate reactions (headache from the fumes, skin irritation, burns due to accidental contact, etc.), but repeated or chronic exposure may cause different health problems. New cancers are cropping up and neurological diseases (like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s) and autoimmune diseases (like multiple sclerosis, Crohn’s disease and ankylosing spondylarthritis) are on the rise, without mentioning fertility problems8. What is causing this steady rise in serious health problems? We attempted to answer this question in partnership with the Environmental Working Group (EWG) in the article Is it true half of cancers can be prevented? One thing is certain: checking the products you are currently using, looking for known certifications, reading the labels and researching the manufacturers before buying are all steps in the right direction.
Isn’t there a law to protect us?
Household chemicals are governed by the Consumer Chemicals and Containers Regulations, (CCCR, 2001)9in Canada and the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) and the Federal Hazardous Substances Act (FHSA)10 in the United States. These two laws have many similarities. Their role is to force manufacturers to classify their household products according to the level of danger for human health and the environment. This is determined through specific tests conducted during the product’s use. However, the tests do not take repeated exposure into consideration11. Also, while the finished product is evaluated, the ingredients that comprise it are not individually assessed12.The tests are conducted solely to detect an immediate reaction to the product. When that happens, the manufacturer must add a hazard pictogram and any appropriate precautions and warnings to the label.
Globally Harmonized System (GHS) Pictograms13
What about products that do not have a hazard pictogram? Are they safe?
While pictograms are mandatory when the product requires, labelling all ingredients is not. In fact, manufacturers have no legal obligation to list all the ingredients contained in their product, which is why some popular cleaning products have almost nothing indicated on the label! Consumers are left in the dark about the ingredients of concern and potentially carcinogenic contaminants the products may contain.
How can we make better choices?
While our usual recommendation is to read labels before you buy, it will not help you avoid all ingredients of concern given that they don’t have to be listed. According to Environmental Defence: “It’s time for the government to end the guessing game by making full ingredient disclosure mandatory on product labels.”14
The good news
Scientists are studying the medium- and long-term effects of different chemical substances and will reach conclusions in time. In the meantime, there are brands that pride themselves on transparency and want to offer the healthiest possible choices for you and your family.
#1 - Make use of independent organizations, like the EWG, whose mission is to protect consumers and make it easy to understand each ingredient’s level of risk. Browse the EWG’s Guide to Healthy Cleaning to find product brands that contain safe ingredients.
#2 - Opt for transparent businesses that list their ingredients on the label, and look at the product’s composition.
#3 - Read about the companies’ product development criteria, ethics and values to make an informed choice.
#4 - Favour brands that are environmentally certified by a third party, such as ECOLOGO.