Your house may be clean and even smelling good. But it may actually be bad for your health because of the kinds of cleaners you are using. An average household is estimated to contain at least 20 toxic chemicals, most of which come from the very cleaners we use to keep the house spic-and-span. It’s almost like letting your child loose in a chemicals factory.
As indoor pollution can be 10 times more than outdoor pollution, and we spend 90 percent of our time indoor and 65 percent of our time at homes, breathing in the fumes of cleaners, many of which contain high concentrations of chlorine, is harmful to our health, and particularly dangerous for children and causes heart conditions or chronic respiratory problems such as asthma or emphysema. Even if these cleaning agents are not ingested they can irritate the throat, eyes, lungs, mouth and ears.
Why should I be aware of this?
We need to know what is in the cleaners, scourers, bleaches, antiseptics, disinfectants etc that we douse our homes with on a daily basis. We also need to reassess just how clean, and germ free our homes need to be. Humans have built-in immunity systems against most bacteria. Bacteria can never be totally eradicated from your home, and in a way it shouldn’t be. This is because overuse of disinfectants and antibacterial household products may inhibit our ability to develop antibodies to the most harmless of bacteria, thus making them harmful.
A number of these cleaners also bring in most of the toxic materials in the household. The more commercial household cleaning brands are found in a house, more are the levels of toxicity. Moreover the chemicals used in the cleaners and disinfectants can harm you in other ways than expected.
Household cleaners and health
When people unthinkingly clean their homes using cleaners available in the market, they are exposing themselves and their children to chemicals much more harmful than the dirt and grime they were trying to banish in the first place.
The use of these chemicals has two drastic consequences. First, when one touches or inhales these chemical cleaners, or ensures that children only play with toys that have been `sanitised’, one's body absorbs these chemicals. The effects of many of them are known but unsettlingly, there are many chemicals whose effects are long term. So their effect upon the human body is not yet fully understood. Second, these cleaners contaminate ground water and further endanger the environment.
Laundry products, dishwasher detergents, mildew stain removers, and some bath and toilet cleaners are highly corrosive and can be fatal if swallowed. Its common side effects include skin rash, burning eyes etc. The Cancer Prevention Coalition says that chlorine bleach is especially hazardous to people with heart conditions or asthma. Bleach has been singled out by the Children's Health Environmental Coalition as the cleaner which is most garmful.
Bleach is potentially very toxic in combination with acidic substances, such as ammonia, toilet bowl cleaners, drain cleaners, and even vinegar. It reacts with these compounds to produce highly toxic chloramine gas. A short term exposure may cause watering and burning of the eyes, inflammation of the sinuses and shortness of breath with difficulty breathing. Prolonged exposure causes damage to lung tissue and chemical pneumonia, specially among children.
Household cleaners and environment
Many household cleaning products and air fresheners produce high levels of volatile organic compounds and harmful ultra fine dust in the air, resulting in indoor pollution and the risk of developing asthma in children. In fact, there is a suggested correlation between the frequent use of chemical based products by pregnant women and the wheezing in young children.
Many all-purpose cleaners contain neurotoxins and nasal irritants that can be inhaled. Exposure to these toxic chemicals while pregnant can even result in miscarriages. These chemicals have also been implicated in birth defects, low birth weight, and/or behavioral deficits in young children.
What we can do about it?
Making household cleaners at home
The most fool proof method of cleaning one's home without exposing oneself and one's loved ones to toxic chemicals is to make cleaners with natural substances commonly found in most kitchens. Here are some ingredients one might need –
- Cornstarch: good for starching clothes, and for absorbing oil and grease
- Borax (sodium borate): this is a natural and less toxic alternative to bleach. It kills mold and bacteria, deodorizes, removes stains and boosts the cleaning power of soap.
- Essential oils of clove, lemon, cinnamon bark, eucalyptus and tea tree: For disinfecting and fragrance
- Lemon juice: this is great for cutting through grease. Removes many types of stains from clothing. A natural alternative to bleach.
- Table salt: A good abrasive and scourer.
- Toothpaste: A mild abrasive for delicate surfaces.
- Vinegar (acetic acid): this cuts grease, removes stains and softens water.
- Washing soda (sodium carbonate): this brightens the laundry, softens water, cuts grease and acts as a disinfectant.
- Soapnut or Reetha boiled and strained is a great disinfectant soap solution for swabbing the floors as well as washing laundry.
Try greener alternatives
Try some of the following alternatives to chemical disinfectants --
- Use half a cup of Borax in a gallon of hot water for cleaning all surfaces. Add essential oils or fresh aromatic herbs like thyme, rosemary or lavender to this solution for fragrance, if desired. Put this solution in a plastic spray bottle for an effective homemade spray-and-wipe cleaner!
- Another all-purpose cleaner may be made combining 2 tablespoons borax, 1/4 cup lemon juice and 2 cups hot water. Store in a spray bottle and use whenever required.
- Borax mixed with strong vinegar is an even more powerful cleaner. Add essential oils of your choice to mask the vinegary smell.
Here is how to make glass and mirror cleaners at home:
- Just use strong vinegar in a spray bottle like a spray-on glass cleaner. Another good cleaner can be made by mixing together a half cup of vinegar, two cups of water and a teaspoon of any good liquid soap.
- One great way to clean and shine windows is to shake together a quarter cup of white vinegar, 1 tablespoon cornstarch and a quart of warm water. Spray on to windows, wipe and buff with crumpled newspaper.
- Rubbing alcohol also makes an effective glass cleaner.
Often, toilet cleaners contain some of the most toxic chemicals. Here are some healthier options –
- The baking soda—vinegar combo works best here. Sprinkle baking soda in the bowl. Spray some vinegar and scour with toilet brush for sparkling results.
- To work on those ikky brown stains in the bowl, make a thick paste of Borax and lemon juice or vinegar. Leave the paste on the stain for at least two hours before scrubbing with brush.
Chemical drain cleaners or uncloggers release very toxic chemicals into the sewage lines, making sewage difficult to treat. Here is a gentler home remedy. Every week, put half a cup baking soda in your drain. Then add a cup of vinegar. The mixture bubbles and froths, but don’t worry, it is not toxic. When it has foamed for a bit, add a gallon of boiling water.
Air freshener sprays are a source of indoor pollution. Replace them with any of the options below –
- Simmer some spices of choice in a pot of water for a couple of hours on very low heat.
- Substitute spices with orange or lemon rinds for fresh fragrance.
- Place an open container of baking soda in cupboards, refrigerators and other closed spaces. It will absorb all odours.
- A couple of slices of white bread placed in the fridge takes care of all those food odours in there.
- To make a freshener spray, shake together half a cup of lemon juice with a cup of hot water in a plastic spray bottle, and use liberally.
- Unscented kitty litter (before kitty has used it of course) placed in a bowl acts as a deodorizer, so does vinegar.
- The best way to get rid of cigarette smoke is to place charcoal in a bowl somewhere in the room.
Home cleaner only with vinegar
Yes vinegar. The liquid that was kept for use with your favorite recipes is actually a great all purpose cleaner. As it is acidic in nature, it can cut through just about any form of grease. And if you're worried about vinegar smell in the house don't worry; it will evaporate once the vinegar dries.
With the use of just vinegar and alcohol you can make an all purpose cleaner, a window/glass cleaner, floor cleaner, furniture polish, toilet bowl cleaner, drain cleaner and oven cleaner. White distilled vinegar is a safe non-toxic cleaner which works against most molds, bacteria and germs.
Fill a spray bottle half with vinegar and half with hot water and add about 4 drops of ivory dish soap. Shake well and keep it stored for use whenever required. This can be sprayed on any surface.
White vinegar, rubbing alcohol and hot water can be combined to make glass cleaner. Fill a spray bottle half full with vinegar, add 1 tbsp of alcohol, and fill the rest with hot water.
Floor cleaner can be made just by mixing half a cup of vinegar with one gallon of hot water. This will leave the floors shining.
Dos and don'ts
- Never mix two different household cleaners
- Never mix different brands of the same product (like two different toilet bowl cleaners). They may contain different compounds that could react with each other.
- Keep all household cleaners out of reach of children and pets
- Use these cleaners with care. If you come in contact with a cleaner which irritates your skin, wash it under running water for five minutes.
- Avoid inhaling cleaner and polish fumes. Open all windows to ensure the fumes do not stay trapped inside.
- Dispose of empty cleaner containers carefully. Never try and burn used aerosol containers – they could explode like bombs.
- Children are often exposed to more environmental threats than adults, and are more vulnerable to environmentally - caused diseases. This is because children are smaller, and their systems are still developing.
- Of the 17, 000 chemicals that appear in common in household products, only 30 percent have been adequately tested for the negative effects on our health.
- The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has found that airborne chemical levels in homes were as much as 70 times higher inside than outside.
- The Hazards of Household Cleaning Products
- Household cleaners are hard call for consumers
- Chemical Hazards in the Home
- For more home recipes for household cleaners, go to Clean & Green
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