There are plenty of people out there, especially in my field who are anti-everything, especially ‘chemicals’ and man-made products that make our life easier. I’m not one of those. I love science, research, quantifiable results. I love the idea that we may be able to create solutions to fix the problems we created, as confusing as that might sound. I believe that technology can be used well, that moving foward we can find ways to improve our effect on the planet and individuals.
But the last 100 years or so have seen gigantic leaps forward in technology from plastic to microprocessors, new drugs and surgical techniques. The advancements have come with costs, often costs we didn’t see coming.
Antibiotics are a good example, with antibiotic resistance becoming a looming known threat in our world. The use of plastic to replace glass seemed like a great solution to cutting weight for transportation and having to sanitize between uses. Automobiles seemed like a wonderful way to expand our personal worlds and provide better employment while being able to live farther away. Yet all of these advances have caused their own issues, some of which were known before the problems were obvious, others surprised us in our hubris of believing everything we did would only affect us humans on a personal level rather than global.
Household and industrial cleaners are no different. We’ve known for decades that industrial cleaners could be quite toxic to human through inhalation as well as physical contact. Dry cleaners have known that some of their primary cleaners cause cancer for over 25 years. So why don’t we take our household cleaners seriously?
We know we have to keep children from our cleaners, but that is because we worry about them drinking them or getting them in their eyes. Some of us follow basic safety protocols such as wearing gloves or providing ventilation, such as recommended by The Cleveland Clinic. The fact is that many cleaners are toxic to our systems simply by inhalation when we are using them.
The report from a 20 year long study called European Community Respiratory Health Survey has truly opened our eyes to how dangerous the long term exposure to inhaling while using cleaners can truly be. Specifically, what they state is that snappy cleaners accelerate the decline of lung function and that non-spray cleaners increase the decline. The difference between ‘accelerate’ and ‘increase’ is that spray cleaners actively damage your lung function significantly and non-spray cleaners cause damage to lung function greater than not cleaning.
The good news is that while occupational cleaners have an increased risk of COPD, household cleaners don’t seem to increase the risk of COPD. At least in the 20 years of the study. Expanded studies as people age might show something different.
Environmental Working Group has a wonderful article that breaks down some of the actual chemicals in cleaners as they relate to asthma and cancer risk. While no large studies have been conducted comparing cleaner use and cancer, one study showed a potential link between breast cancer and frequency of cleaner use, especially air fresheners and mold/mildew cleaners. ‘Fragrance’ may be listed on the ingredients list, by the way, but ‘fragrance’ isn’t AN ingredient, it’s lots of ingredients that don’t have to be disclosed and may contain anything. Fragrances are known to be one of the top five allergens across the board. Certainly some companies may be more judicious in what they use, but even essential oils carry potential risks if not used correctly.
So, if cleaners are dangerous to us when used regularly, what can we do? Just live dirty? No, the solution is to get some education and possibly resign yourself to using a little more elbow grease.
You may have heard that to eat more healthy, try not to buy anything that lists more than 5 ingredients and make sure you can pronounce all of them. The same can be sort of said for cleaning products, although some ingredients will still have hard to pronounce names. The EWG also offers ratings on the safety of many cleaners you can buy, which can help you make a more informed decision.
You can also look for tested and approved cleaners. Certifying companies like Green Seal help create standards for home as well as industrial products and verify cleaners as meeting those standards. You can easily recognize certified products by their symbol.
You may want to focus on all purpose cleaners rather than having a different cleaner for different areas of the house. When certain cleaners mingle in the air or on a surface they can combine to be even more toxic. Remember, the body absorbs what touches it, including molecules in the air which are also being inhaled every time you breathe.
You can easily make your own using things like white vinegar, isopropyl alcohol, baking soda, lemon juice, etc. Essential oils can be added that are as effective as any household cleaner at killing bacteria and viruses. There are plenty of options that can refresh your home and clean well.
If you have a cleaning service that cleans your house, you can find companies that use greener cleaners, which are cleaners that are better for the environment and water as well as lower in risk for damaging your lung health or cancer.
I offer a program called Clean CLEANer, which can go through your household cleaners and let you know more about where they rate on a safety scale. I can also suggest options that can be bought or teach you to create your own cleaners that can be personalized to your household cleaning issues and scent preferences. People with compromised immune systems such as cancer treatment patients, hepatitis, even autoimmune disease may find relief in choosing more natural products for their home, and certainly lower their risk of inflammation and health issues from standard household cleaners.