To fulfil the increasingly ambitious claims for their products, manufacturers rely on combinations of chemical compounds that are often highly toxic. But if a cleanser can instantly strip a kitchen tile of accumulated grease, what might it do to your body's cells or to the natural en-vironment?
The average household is home to more than 60 hazardous products using hundreds of chemicals, mostly derived from petrochemicals. As these products don't biodegrade, or do so only very slowly, they are dangerous on two levels: when being used, by absorption through the skin or inhalation via the lungs; and when they accumulate in the environment and enter the food chain.
Chemicals that enter the body or flow into our waterways can linger for months. Given that the average household discharges 40 L/day of chemically polluted water per person as waste-which finds its way back into our bodies-these noxious chemicals are ubiquitous in our lives.
In 1985, the US Environmental Protec-tion Agency published the results of a myth-shattering study, revealing that our greatest personal exposure to carcinogen-ic and neurotoxic pollutants was from the air in our own homes ( EPA 0589; presented at the Annual Meeting of Air Pollution Control Association, 25 June 1984, San Francisco, CA ).
Although it is impossible to avoid all chemical culprits, it does pay to know which are the key ones that keep turning up in our cleaning products. We can then at least limit our exposure by switching to more natural alternatives.
Ammonia is perhaps the most familiar disinfectant as it's been used for generations as a household cleaner. But even at the low levels used in home-cleaning products, ammonia can burn the skin, while its fumes can irritate the eyes and lungs.
Chlorine is another familiar compound that needs to be treated with caution nonetheless. Like ammonia, its fumes can damage the eyes, skin and respiratory tract in particular ( Toxicol lnd Health, 1993; 9: 439-55 ). Commonly found in household cleaners, it is also the most frequent cause of accidental household poisoning.
And once chlorine is out in the environment, it reacts readily with organic substances to create other hazardous compounds such as organochlorines, dioxins and chloroform. Organochlorines are known carcinogens ( Environ Health, 2004; 66: 24-32, 40 ); dioxins are linked to cancer, reproductive disorders and immune dysfunction ( Toxicol Lett, 2004; 149: 281-5 ), and the effects of chloroform poisoning are all too well known.
NTA (nitrilotriacetic acid) and EDTA (ethylenediaminetetraacetic acid) are used instead of phosphates to reduce water hardness due to calcium and mag-nesium, and to stabilise bleach and foaming agents. Like many household-cleaner ingredients, they are skin-irritants-but that's the least of the risks they pose. Once down the drains, NTA and EDTA efficiently bind with toxic metals. These then re-enter the food chain through drinking water and food such as fish.
Fragrance is a delicate word that belies the heavy-handed synthetic mixes now used to produce it. The resulting artificial aromas manage to overpower the offensive smells of the active ingredients in cleaners, but only by exploiting the pow-er of up to 5000 chemicals. Once absorbed by the skin, these can breach the blood- brain barrier, and are very slow to clear. As yet, there is no agency regulating the fragrance industry.
Mineral spirits are common to most standard all-purpose cleaners, and help to cut through grease. However, like other petrochemical derivatives, these can persist in human tissue-with long-term health consequences ( Occup Environ Med, 2000; 57: 325-34 ).
Phenol or carbolic acid is a suspected carcinogen that is also corrosive to the skin on contact, but its anaesthetic prop-erties mean that it can wreak havoc before any pain is felt. This petrochemical by-product has been linked to brain and spinal-cord damage, and clinical depression ( J Craniofac Surg, 2004; 15: 1010-3 ).
Pine oil is a disinfectant derived by steam distillation from pinewood. As such, it sounds natural and inoffensive, but it can often cause skin irritation and allergic reactions.
Musks are particularly noxious and persistent chemicals. Stored by the body in fat, over time, they can leach out and damage the immune system ( Chemosphere, 2005; 59: 487-92 ).
Lye (sodium or potassium hydroxide) is used to improve stain removal as it's highly caustic: it can burn skin and, if in contact with the eyes, cause blindness.
Butyl cellosolve or oxitol and its relations are solvents and grease-cutters found in many cleaners. They can irritate mucous membranes and depress the nervous system ( Natl Toxicol Program Tech Rep Ser, 2000; 484: 1-290 ).
Propylene glycol is a solvent that inhibits the growth of moulds and bacteria and, so, is often found in kitchen and bathroom cleaners. But it's also a known neurotoxin, carcinogen and risk factor for systemic sclerosis, or 'scleroderma', an autoimmune disease resulting in in-creased collagen in the skin and other organs ( J Rheumatol, 2004; 31: 2395-401; Natl Toxicol Program Tech Rep Ser, 2004; 515: 1-306 ).
Sodium lauryl sulphate (SLS) is a strong detergent and foaming agent that is also a major skin- and eye-irritant that is readily absorbed by the body ( J Am Coll Toxicol, 1983; 2: 127-81; Rev Med Chir Soc Med Nat Iasi, 2004; 108: 169-72 ).
Diethanolamine (DEA) and its various relations are used to thicken cleaners and stabilise foam. They are hormone disruptors, and are toxic to the skin and nervous system. DEA reacts with products containing nitrates to form nitrosamines-which are carcinogenic ( Appl Occup Environ Hyg, 2003; 18: 902-12 ).
Although none of these ingredients alone is life-threatening in the short term, the impact of each can be dangerously compounded if mixed with the ingredients of other products. When ammonia and chlorine meet, for example, they form a ruthless toxic team-a deadly chlor-amine gas. Furthermore, many of these noxious ingredients are bioaccumulative: they amass in the tissues and exert effects over time.
Faced with the incontestable evidence on these hazards, manufacturers are be-ginning to take tentative steps towards removing some of the worst culprits. But it can amount to little more than lip service when phosphates, for example, are replaced with sulphates, which are themselves corrosive.
So, faced with the arsenal of toxins in our kitchen cupboards and the stubbornly dirty surfaces we still have to attack, what is the solution?
More enlightened companies have res-ponded to mounting consumer concerns by producing alternatives with 'green' ap-peal. By eliminating or drastically reducing the use of the above chemicals, they claim to fight bacteria without launching a parallel assault on you or the wider environment. Where a standard cleaner relies on ammonia, for example, a greener cleaner may use hydrogen peroxide. In others, borax may replace chlorine as a bleach.
This shift is proving popular with consumers. According to the Energy Saving Trust, 34 per cent of us now use green cleaners regularly.
However, while they are undoubtedly an improvement on the usual cleaning products, these supposedly more anodyne products aren't always quite what they purport to be. Some use the same active ingredients as their conventional counterparts, albeit in more dilute concentrations. Nevertheless, they still have a potential for adverse chemical reactions. Some use natural fragrances that are only a little less harmful than synthetic ones, and others use natural ingredients such as lemon juice and essential oils, which can still be irrita-ting to the skin. Some are produced in more concentrated form to reduce packaging. While this aim is laudable, the concentration increases the irritant potential. Claims of biodegradable packaging may also be circumspect as they beg the question: how long?
So, it pays to examine labels and scrutinise packaging before being sold by any 'natural' or 'green' claims. European Com-munity recommendations mean that household-product labelling has become more comprehensive, and the greener manufacturers tend to adhere to the recommendations more closely.
However, none of the compounds in either conventional or green products is indispensable. Natural, home-made alternatives (see box, page 2) can be surprisingly effective, and don't underestimate the power of hot water and elbow grease. Vigorously applied, they often dispense with the idea that you need to use specially formulated detergents for every household-cleaning job.
Cleaning products can be up to 90 per cent water, and the implements you use to apply them-be they a scouring pad or toilet brush-can be as effective as the product itself. So, before you buy into the world of greener cleaners, make sure you have first tried some softer options.
But before we whip up even those softer suds, it's worth asking to what extent we need to destroy all the bacteria in our everyday environments. US microbiologist Dr Stuart Levy, at Tufts University, believes that exposure to germs in the first year of life is crucial for the development of antibodies, needed to fight infection in later life-a view attracting increasing support among the medical profession.
Coming into contact with germs is an unavoidable and healthy part of life, and helps to maintain immune function. In contrast, if a product fails to eliminate all the bacteria at which it is targeted, the surviving organisms can then develop resistance to the agent and pass this resistance on to other, more dangerous mi-crobes, resulting in 'superbugs' that are antibiotic-resistant. The Infectious Dis-eases Society of America and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have both recently issued guidelines and backed public-awareness campaigns on this topic.
A New York experiment where fam-ilies were given cleaning fluids with or without antibacterial agents is instructive. During the four-year follow-up, there were no significant differences in infection rates between the families. Those using antibacterial cleaning products suffered as many common illnesses such as fever, diarrhoea, cough or skin problems as those who cleaned without antibacterial agents ( Ann Intern Med, 2004; 140: 321-9 ).
Our panel tested five green cleaners, assessing each on its chemical load, alternative components, disclosure of ingredients, cleaning effectiveness and cost.
Orange Cleaning Concentrate *****
Distributor: Earth Friendly
Price: lb3.50 for 650 mL (55 p/100 mL)
This has an inviting orange smell, but the aroma is not quite matched by the reputed solvent power of the main active ingredient, orange oil, and the additional use of corn ethanol. Nevertheless, this is good value for money, well packaged, easy to read and quick to use.
Despite being a concentrate, it produced no reactions on contact with the skin.
Multi-Purpose Cleaner Organic ****
Citrus and Geranium
Distributor: Green People
Price: lb6.99 for 200 mL (30 p/100 mL)
This highly concentrated liquid can be diluted in water or used neat-which is expensive-although the dull packaging makes it look like an economy product. Designed to be used with a microfibre cloth that makes it more effective, it works well on a range of surfaces. Its cleaning strength comes from essential oils and plant extracts-responsible for a long list of ingredients-which give this product a pleasant, faintly citrussy smell.
Multi-Surface Cleaner ****
Price: lb2.95 for 1 L (30 p/100 mL)
The subtle aroma of this cleaner is match-ed by its subtle efficacy-elbow grease is a must here. But as long as you're prepared to put in the muscle, this is good value for money. Based on vegetable sources, it doesn't irritate the skin if used without gloves. However, its environmental credentials, detailed on the packaging, appear to be put above its cleaning power.
Cleaner Lemon ***
Price: lb4.19 for 500 mL (85 p/100 mL)
This is reasonable value for money, given the size of the bottle; the labelling is clear and helpful. However, despite the acidic smell, it doesn't have the cleaning strength implied by its name and was not effective for oven stains. Its surfactants and ethanol are all plant-based, and it scored full marks for its environmental credentials. It cleans well, but is not as powerful as conventional products.
Organic Cleaner **
Distributor: Dr Bronner
Price: lb6.40 for 16 fl oz (lb1.20/100 mL)
Where conventional soaps use tallow (beef fat) as a base, this uses olive, hemp and palm oils instead. Marketed as an all-round cleaner ("for cars, rugs, wood and extra heavy jobs"), it's only as good as the muscle behind it. Effective on lightly soiled surfaces, vigorous scrubbing is otherwise required. The bottle is small, expensive per application and somewhat impractical. The packaging is convincing in terms of its health and environmental virtues, but they don't compensate for its weak cleaning power. It uses SLS, but it's a coconut-based form that doesn't irritate the skin.
Reducing the risks
For especially grimy jobs, you may feel that nothing short of a high-impact off-the-shelf cleaning product will do. If so, there are steps you can take to limit their harmful effects:
o Use less than the amount recommended on the packaging . Manufacturers tend to overstate rather than underestimate the amount required to do the job
o Wear rubber gloves to avoid the risk of absorbing toxic chemicals through the skin
o Ventilate the area you are working in to allow nasty vapours to escape, reducing your chances of breathing them in
o Never mix cleaners containing bleach with any product that does not come with instructions for such mixing
o Rinse treated surfaces well after application to remove any residues of chemicals, especially on food-preparation surfaces
o Favour liquids over sprays . Although liquids may be less concentrated than aerosol products, spraying produces a fine mist of chemicals that is easily inhaled and quick to enter the bloodstream
o Don't use cleaning agents on surfaces every time you wipe them -sometimes just using hot water is enough.
Complex chemical brews are not necessary for cleaning most domestic surfaces. With a few simple household ingredients, you can make a cleaner powerful enough for most jobs around the house. There are nine basic ingredients for surface-cleaning jobs:
o Vinegar . Mixed with water, it can be used on windows, mirrors and tiles
o Baking soda . An all-purpose scourer when mixed with water to form a paste, it can be used on sinks, bathtubs and worktops
o Lemon juice . This cuts through grease quickly and can also be mixed with salt water for an abrasive effect
o Washing soda (sodium carbonate; sal soda) . A chemical relation of baking soda, but more alkaline, this can still cut grease and neutralises odours
o Liquid soap or vegetable-based washing-up liquid . These are much gentler than commercial surface cleaners-and often surprisingly effective
o Borax (sodium borate) . A naturally occurring alkaline mineral, this not only softens water, but can also deodorise and disinfect
o Tea tree oil . A few drops of this natural disinfectant can be added to any solution for the kitchen or bathroom
o Soapnut. Used in India for thousands of years for wide variety of cleaning jobs-from cooking surfaces to cars-this brown-coloured powder is high in saponin, which produces a foam with an action similar to that of the surfactants used in conventional cleaning products. As it needs plenty of rinsing after use, it's best for jobs in wet areas
o Essential oils . Oils such as peppermint, pine, lemon or eucalyptus can be added simply to produce a fresh scent.