Call me eco-snooty if you want, but I like to avoid toxic chemicals whenever I can. You could say I’m doing it to tread lightly on the environment, but mostly I’m concerned about how things in our personal environment affect our health. Sure, it’s the chemicals in cleaners that do the heavy lifting. Avoiding the inevitable accumulation of toxic chemicals in our bodies just seems like a good idea.
Green Household Cleaners
Green household cleaners are widely available, but not all of these products are safe. Since manufacturers don’t have to list every ingredient, you can’t know for sure what’s in them. On the honor system, true green companies claim to list all ingredients on labels. Others do not.
Savvy tip: For more information on any product, call the toll-free number listed on the package or visit the company’s website.
Another problem is that cleaning products don’t have to be tested. There are no federal requirements, so consumers have no official warning about long-term health effects or fetal damage from using household cleaners, so a list of all the chemicals to avoid doesn’t exist.
So how do you know which “green” cleaning products are effective. Even though I’m not in one of the risk groups mentioned above, I often check labels for warnings to those groups, for example, labels will say, “not safe for pregnant women.”
Even though the message doesn’t technically apply to me, it’s still a red flag that tells me to keep shopping. I prefer to choose products that are as nontoxic as possible. And not all companies post such warnings.
A study from the University of Bristol in the United Kingdom found that babies of women who frequently used chemical-based cleaners while pregnant are more than twice as likely to have breathing problems. Do you need to worry if you’re pregnant and have already used harsh chemical cleaners? Probably not. Your exposure is most likely limited and the likelihood of complications is negligible, says Brad Imler, PhD., president of the American Pregnancy Association.
Tom Natan, Ph.D., research director for the National Environmental Trust, agrees that limited exposure may not be too big a deal. “While we don’t know enough about these products, most are probably safe when used as directed in limited amounts and only when necessary,” he says. The bigger concern is multiple exposures.
“You don’t always know where the dangers are and you’re potentially exposed more often than you think throughout the day,” explains Natan, who believes soap, hot water and elbow grease are vastly underrated. “You don’t have to kill bacteria; you can just remove them from surfaces by scrubbing and using hot water,” he says.
Still, if you’re hedging your bets, you want to know which cleaning products are safest and which to avoid, right? While even the scientists don’t agree on the dangers of every chemical cleaner, here are a few to watch out for – and a few good substitute cleaners to try.
Green Cleaners that Work
Corrosive: May destroy living tissue (skin or eyes) on contact.
Irritant: May cause substantial injury to the area of the body upon contact.
Toxic: May cause injury or illness upon ingestion, absorption or inhalation.
CONCERNS: Chlorine: Irritant; toxic; corrosive; may contain trace amounts of potentially carcinogenic organochlorines.
STAY SAFE: “Safe when used as directed,” says Brad Imler, Ph.D., president of the American Pregnancy Association. Use sparingly and with adequate ventilation. Never mix with ammonia (which creates toxic chloramine gas).
GO GREEN: Try Seventh Generation Free & Clear Non-Chlorine Bleach.
CONCERNS: Hydrochloric or oxalic acid, calcium hypochlorite: Irritant, toxic, corrosive.
STAY SAFE: The American Pregnancy Association recommends keeping the area well ventilated and wearing protective gloves. Never mix with other household cleaners.
GO GREEN: Try Ecover Natural Toilet Bowl Cleaner.
CONCERNS: Ammonia, petroleum, glycol ethers: Irritant; toxic; corrosive; May damage the nervous system.
STAY SAFE: “Don’t engage in overkill,” says Tom Natan, Ph.D., research director for the National Environmental Trust. Wear gloves and use proper ventilation.
GO GREEN: Try Planet All Purpose Cleaner.
CONCERNS: Ammonia: Irritant; toxic; corrosive; may contain solvents and glycol ethers; may effect the nervous system.
STAY SAFE: Use sparingly and with adequate ventilation. Close container when not in use.
GO GREEN: Try Bi-O-Kleen Glass Cleaner.
CONCERNS: Ammonia, potassium or sodium hydroxide: Irritant, toxic, corrosive.
STAY SAFE: The American Pregnancy Association recommends not using oven cleaners because the space is too confined to be well ventilated.
GO GREEN: Try Earth Friendly Products Orange Plus Concentrate.
- Green Clean: The Environmentally Sound Guide to Cleaning Your Home by Linda Mason Hunter
- The Naturally Clean Home: 150 Super-Easy Herbal Formulas for Green Cleaning, by Karyn Siegel-Maier
- Green Home Improvement, by Daniel D. Chiras PhD
Note: This information appeared first as part of a series I wrote for Fit Pregnancy magazine.