Is your home a safe haven or a toxin-laden war zone?
When our homes are clean, we feel at peace. After a good sweep, mop, wipe, and scrub, the atmosphere changes from one of chaos and confusion, to one of tranquillity and order.
And while cleaning may not be the most exciting activity on our weekly to-do list, it certainly produces a positive effect on our psyche once we sit back and enjoy the fruits of our labour.
Despite all the time we spend cleaning, how often do we consider what we clean with? We routinely purchase cleaning products from household names – undoubtedly because our mothers used them – and don’t think twice about reading the back of the label.
Yet, when we take a moment to look past the brightly coloured packaging and fancy logos, what we find is anything but attractive.
Skull and crossbones logos, red exclamation marks and flames encased in triangles, and signal words like “hazard” and “warning” casually appear on labels. Not to mention the long list of unpronounceable ingredients.
How has humanity managed to turn a home – a safe haven – into a potentially lethal zone, all the while convincing themselves that it is beneficial? And more importantly, what can we do about it?
Less than a hundred years ago, nearly none of the commercial cleaning products available today existed. People did things the old-fashioned way, and it worked.
Not only did previous generations have clean houses, but also far less exposure to toxic chemicals.
Research consistently shows that the majority of modern household cleaning products contain endocrine (hormone) disrupting compounds and/or asthma-inducing chemicals.
Additionally, studies also reveal that many commercial “green” products do not differ significantly in the amount of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) they contain. This is partly due to a lack of regulation and labelling standards in the industry.
For example, legally, companies can omit certain ingredients, or hide a long list of potentially harmful compounds under blanket listings such as “fragrance”.
A common example of this is phthalates, which help chemicals and scents bind together and also soften plastics. They are found in a large number of personal care products, perfumes, air fresheners, fragranced cleaning products and plastic food packaging.
Phthalates can cross the placenta during pregnancy, and have been linked to intellectual and attention deficits, and a reduction in IQ levels in children.
Don’t be fooled – the risk of chemical exposure and potential negative side-effects don’t end once you are finished using the product. As the chemicals settle and gather in household dust, they negatively affect indoor air quality.
This dust eventually settles on carpets, floors, surfaces, and furniture, which means humans constantly breathe in chemicals, or absorb them through their skin.
Babies, children, and pets are especially at risk, as they spend large amounts of time on floor surfaces. Additionally, cleaning products that enter the water supply through drains and toilets can have negative effects on aquatic plant and animal life, and affect the quality of our water supply.
Some common side effects related to chemical cleaners include eye, skin, nose, throat, and respiratory tract irritations, bronchitis, corrosive damage to the skin, skin burns, blindness, and poisoning if ingested.
These side effects will vary in intensity based on the frequency and method of exposure (e.g. skin burns from ammonia will only occur if ammonia comes into contact with the skin).
However, given the potential dangers, and the ready availability of safe, inexpensive alternatives, it is worth considering whether it is necessary to have these chemicals present in our houses, even when used properly.
Some of the most dangerous chemicals (to humans and the environment) to avoid include phosphates, petroleum distillates, triclosan, ammonia, chlorine, phthalates, VOCs, formaldehyde, nonylphenol ethoxylates (NPE’s), nitrobenzene, hydrochloric acid, bleach, and perchloroethylene.
While this is not an exhaustive list, it serves as a guideline for what to look out for on your nextshopping trip.
As some closing advice, I want to encourage you to check ingredient labels on washing powders, fabric softeners, dishwashing liquids, kitchen and bathroom cleaners, and air fresheners thoroughly.
Or better yet, invest in inexpensive natural, biodegradable alternatives. You can make extremely effective household cleaners using kitchen basics such as lemon juice, baking soda, white vinegar, organic essential oils, hydrogen peroxide and water.
There are numerous resources on the internet that will teach you how to make multipurpose cleaners using these ingredients. For example, clean your windows by mixing one part of vinegar with four parts of water.
Simply spray this mixture onto the window, and wipe off with a sponge or cloth. White vinegar also works wonders for ridding your shower or bathroom tiles of mildew. Apply the vinegar directly to the affected surface and leave for 30 minutes to one hour. Wipe with a sponge and rinse with warm water.
Change may be uncomfortable at first, but starting off with a clean slate when it comes to household cleaning, will definitely benefit you and your whole family in the long run.
Tracy Venter is a nutritionist in Somerset West.