Can the chemicals in standard household cleaners harm you, your kids, or your pets? Can products so widely used and distributed really be that bad?
I decided to do a DIY MOM/DIY 365 under-the-kitchen-sink audit of commonly used kitchen and bathroom cleaners to see what exactly I had been using on a daily basis and what effects it could have on me, my husband, my unborn child, my two dogs, and my two little girls.
I pulled out my Windex, Comet Bathroom Cleaner, Lysol Toilet Bowl Cleaner, and Lysol Antibacterial Kitchen Spray.
1. Windex doesn't even list its ingredients, which amazes me. It does say "KEEP OUT OF REACH OF CHILDREN AND PETS." Hmmm... wonder why?
2. Again, Comet Bathroom Cleaner doesn't list ingredients, but does say: "ACTIVE INGREDIENT: Citric Acid. (Ok, that's pretty benign. According to Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Citric_acid, "Citric acid is a weak organic acid, and it is a natural preservative and is also used to add an acidic, or sour, taste to foods and soft drinks. ...It can also be used as an environmentally benign cleaning agent.") But then on closer observation I see that citric acid makes up only 6 percent of the total formula the other 94 percent is listed as "other ingredients."A little more sleuthing turns up a hefty precautionary statement that says the cleaner is harmful if you get it in your eyes ("call poison control center or doctor for advice"), don't mix it with anything containing bleach or mildew stain removers as it may cause irritating fumes, and, again, call the poison control center or doctor if swallowed because it contains an alcohol ethoxylate. A quick search on alcohol ethoxylate turns this alarming statement up:
"Toxicity to humans, including carcinogenicity, reproductive and developmental toxicity, neurotoxicity, and acute toxicity." and "Toxicity to aquatic organisms." SOURCE: http://www.pesticideinfo.org/Detail_Chemical.jsp?Rec_Id=PC109
3. Lysol Toilet Bowl Cleaner--I'm ready for some bad news on this one before I even start my research. Online sources that I've perused before had said toilet bowl cleaners are particularly toxic. The front label as usual states to keep out of reach of children, but instead of saying caution, it says "WARNING." The precautionary statement on the back says that it causes "substantial but temporary eye injury," (whatever that means--can "substantial" injuries really be temporary?), that I should wear "protective eyewear, such as goggles, face shield or safety glasses" when using, that I should wash thoroughly with soap and water after handling before eating, chewing gum, or drinking, and finally that I should remove and wash "contaminated" clothing. I don't know what you think, but that doesn't sound too reassuring to me.
However, ingredients--surprise, surprise--are listed. And, they sure are a mouthful--heaven help us, only figuratively! Alkyl dimethyl benzyl ammonium chloride, octyl decyl dimethyl ammonium chloride, didecyl ammonium chloride, dioctyl dimethyl ammonium chloride.
Alkyl dimethyl benzyl ammonium chloride is a suspected gastrointestinal or liver toxicant, immunotoxicant, neurotoxicant, respiratory toxicant, and skin or sense organ toxicant. SOURCE: http://www.scorecard.org/chemical-profiles/summary.tcl?edf_substance_id=8001-54-5
A search on octyl decyl dimethyl ammonium chloride turns up the same precautionary statement as found for alcohol ethoxylate.
Then, it gets worse. Both didecyl ammonium chloride and dioctyl dimethyl ammonium chloride are considered "PAN Bad Actors" by the Pesticide Action Network. These pesticides are at least one of the following: known or possible carcinogen, reproductive or development toxicants, neurotoxic cholinesterase inhibitors, known groundwater contaminants, or pesticides with high acute toxicity. SOURCE: http://www.pesticideinfo.org/Docs/ref_toxicity7.html#BadActor
4. I get the feeling I'm going to be very distressed when I research Lysol Antibacterial Kitchen Cleaner, the very stuff I used to spray on my kitchen countertops because it reassuringly "cuts grease and grime: and "kills household germs." It lists the active ingredient as alkyl dimethyl benzyl ammonium chloride--the same nasty stuff we just learned that is a suspected gastrointestinal or liver toxicant, immunotoxicant, neurotoxicant, respiratory toxicant, and skin or sense organ toxicant. However, it is listed as only .10 percent of the overall solution, the rest being "inert ingredients," whatever they are. So, the really bad stuff is highly diluted, but still it's there, and I don't know about you, but after I used to "disinfect" my tables and countertops with this spray, I wasn't then washing it back off before I prepared food. It's a little disconcerting to think about when I could have just been using vinegar, water and essential oils to clean--see my All-Purpose Cleaner #2 recipe http://diy365.blogspot.com/2009/12/diy-mom-makes-all-purpose-cleaner-2.html--a natural, chemical-free, and non-toxic option.
For an excellent overview of household cleaners and their effects, you can also check out the Organic Consumers Association http://www.organicconsumers.org/articles/article_279.cfm.
So, overall, how did my under-the-kitchen-sink audit go? Well, I did notice that many of the cautionary statements used the words "suspected" or "possible." So, I guess that means they are not confirmed killers, but to me, something's "suspect" for a reason, and I have a choice. I can opt for gentler, natural, non-chemical options. I can spend a few minutes mixing baking soda and organic liquid soap for a "soft scrub" style cleaner. I can use club soda or water and vinegar for mirrors and glass. I can sprinkle some borax--a naturally concurring mined mineral--in my toilet instead of a toxic bright acqua cleaner. I can put my toilet bowl cleaner, kitchen antibacterial spray, glass cleaner, and bathroom cleaner out with the trash and start over--and better.
I hope this has inspired some of you out there to take a closer look at the everyday cleaners and chemicals you use and perhaps choose something safer. Maybe you'll even do your own under-the-kitchen-sink audit! I hope so. If you do, I'd love to hear what you find.