We can gain some understanding of how safe products are for us, and for the environment, if we look at the product categories. Although there are many exceptions, this provides us with a good starting point. The products of most concern are carpet stain removers, paint strippers, tile cleaners and graffiti removers, as these products often contain hazardous ingredients such as carcinogens and reproductive toxins. This does not mean that other products are safe, only that these products are least likely to be safe.
Dishwashing detergents usually contain naphtha (a central nervous system depressant), diethanolsamine (a possible liver toxin) and chlorophenylphenol (a toxic metabolic stimulant).
Laundry detergents may contain the carcinogen trisodium nitrilotriacetate.
Some powdered abrasive cleaners can contain the carcinogen, silica.
Fabric softeners are some of the most toxic products made for daily household use. They contain chemicals such as chloroform, benzyl acetate and pentane, which are known to cause cancer and/or damage to the lungs, brain, and nervous system. When clothes are heated in a clothes dryer or during ironing, the chemicals are even more dangerous. Toxic fumes fill our homes and go into neighbourhood air. Fabric softener chemicals are designed to stay in clothes and to slowly release over a long period of time. This slow release into the air affects the health of those wearing the clothes and of the people around them.
Babies, children, older people, and people who are already health-compromised are especially sensitive to these chemicals. Damage can be permanent, causing life long illness. Chemicals found in fabric softeners and dryer sheets include:
- Benzyl acetate: Linked to pancreatic cancer
- Benzyl Alcohol: Upper respiratory tract irritant
- Ethanol: On the US Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Hazardous Waste list and can cause central nervous system disorders
- A-Terpineol: Can cause respiratory problems, including fatal edema, and central nervous system damage
- Ethyl Acetate: A narcotic on the US EPA’s Hazardous Waste list
- Camphor: Causes central nervous system disorders
- Chloroform: Neurotoxic, anesthetic and carcinogenic
- Linalool: A narcotic that causes central nervous system disorders
- Pentane: A chemical known to be harmful if inhaled
Fabric softeners also contain ammonia, petroleum distillates and very strong artificial fragrances, which are often toxic.
Ammonia is part of many cleaning products – it is used as a product on its own and is also an ingredient in other cleaning products. Even in low concentrations ammonia vapours can cause severe eye, lung and skin irritation. People with chronic respiratory problems should not use ammonia. Ammonia fumes may cause a burning sensation, coughing, wheezing, shortness of breath, laryngitis and watery eyes. Exposure to ammonia fumes over a long period of time may cause damage to liver, kidneys and lungs.
If ammonia is mixed with chlorine bleach (or products containing bleach) it is even more toxic – this mixture forms the highly toxic chloramine gas.
Surfactants are components of detergents that are used as wetting agents to enhance the power of detergents. They reduce surface tension in water and allow aqueous solutions to spread and penetrate more easily.
Residual amounts of surfactants and other synthetic chemicals find their way into waterways from many household cleaning detergents. These surfactants affect aquatic life adversely and potentiate other more toxic chemical residues that are also present in our environment. For example, surfactants alter the properties of a fish’s gill and change the way the fish takes in other substances.
Biodegradability refers to the capability of a substance to decompose by the action of bacteria and other living organisms such as fungi. Biodegradable substances do not bioaccumulate. However, there is no international standard for biodegradability. Different countries have different standards or definitions. In some countries the label ‘boidegradable’ doesn’t necessarily mean that the product is 100 percent biodegradable. The Australian Standard for Biodegradability of Surfactants stipulates that for a surfactant to be ‘biologically soft’ it must biodegrade by as least 80 percent before the end of the 21 day test. Products which are ‘biologically hard’ may biodegrade to only 50 percent, but may still be called ‘biodegradable’. There are surfactants that will biodegrade 100 percent in 7 days, but these are little used.
We as consumers can exert pressure to ensure that manufacturers are required to disclose on product labels the percentage and duration of biodegradability.
Air Fresheners & Deodorisers & Dyes
These products give the illusion of freshness by creating a camouflage of scent and colour to mask odours and stains. Several toxic chemicals are to be found in air fresheners and deodorisers including some chemicals that are possible carcinogens. When these products come in aerosol form they usually contain petrochemical propellants such as butane, isobutene and propane – all of which are neurotoxic at high concentrations. Being airborne, these chemicals are easily inhaled into the lungs, where they can irritate airways, especially in asthmatics and children.
Some air fresheners and many in-tank toilet cleaners contain paradichlorbenzene, an organochlorine chemical, which accumulates in the body and has been linked to liver and nerve damage.
Camphor, common in solid air fresheners, is another irritant capable of causing headaches, shortness of breath, weakness and central nervous system depression.
Spot and Stain Removers, Dry-Cleaning Fluids, & Carpet Cleaners
Solvents are present in many spot and stain removers, dry-cleaning fluids, and carpet cleaners. They are usually volatile and can be harmful if inhaled in large quantities. They are also harmful to aquatic life. Spot and carpet cleaners commonly contain several highly toxic chemicals of which trichloroethylene (TCE) is the worst. Breathin trichloroethylene fumes may cause headaches, dizziness, confusion and difficulty concentrating. At higher amounts it may cause unconsciousness and death. TCE is one of the chemicals suspected of causing a cluster of childhood leukaemia cases due to water contamination. TCE has been linked to possible birth detects such as heart and respiratory system defects, cleft palate and hearing and speech problems.
Soaps and detergent no longer contain the simple plant saponins they once used to. Detergents usually contain petroleum distillates, which may cause cancer and damage the skin and eyes. Petroleum distillates give off toxic fumes that may trigger asthma attacks and irritate the air passages. Some detergents may contain naphthalene. Naphthalene has been linked to cancer and may also damage the eyes, liver, kidneys, skin and central nervous system. Naphthalene fumes may cause brain damage in children, and over a long period of time may cause kidney and liver damage, skin allergy/dermatitis, cataracts and retina damage. Naphthalene has also caused cancer in test animals that inhaled it.
Enzymes are added to laundry products, fabric conditioners and pre-wash products. They are used to hasten stain removal. They act as catalysts to hasten chemical reactions. Just as the protein in bee stings, laundry enzymes can cause severs allergic reactions. They may also cause asthma in people who are around them routinely.
Manufacturers add phosphates to detergents, laundry powders and liquids, and shampoos to soften hard water. Phosphates increase the alkalinity and help suspend dirt in water rather than keeping it in the clothes or hair etc. Phosphates from these sources end up in waterways and are a serious cause for concern in these situations. Phosphate rich water adds extra nutrients to the environment, upsetting the balance between algae and various plant life. Waterways then become choked with weeds which tend to be aggressive plants that rob other less aggressive plant and animal life of oxygen.
Disinfectants are used to kill bacteria, but in the process can kill all bacteria. They make their way into the wastewater treatment plants where they can disrupt the bacterial balance necessary for sewage decomposition.
Bleach & Chlorine
Bleach is also known as sodium hypochlorite, chloramines, hydrochloric acid, trihalomethanes. Bleach consists of sodium, potassium, calcium or magnesium hypochlorite. Ecologically, the use of bleach can lead to the formation of very dangerous, and highly persistent chemicals called organochlorines. This occurs when ‘free chlorine’ reacts with other organic matter in sewage. The manufacture of bleach can also result in the production of mercury as a waste product.
Chlorine can also react with organic matter in drinking water to produce trihalomethanes, which may cause cancer and possibly have developmental effects. A recent study links children’s exposure to one by-product, nitrogen trichloride, in chlorinated indoor pools to asthma.
Chlorine is a highly corrosive gas with a pungent odour. Household bleach is the most common cleaner accidentally swallowed by children. Children are also exposed to dangerous gases when cleaning products containing bleach are mixed with other cleaning agents, such as ammonia.
Chlorine bleach can cause severe skin and eye irritation or chemical burns to broken skin. There is also a possible slight increase in the risk of bladder and rectal cancers in long-term users of chlorinated water supplies. If chlorine is inhaled in high concentrations, it can cause respiratory problems including coughing, choking, chest pain, emphysema and chronic and acute bronchitis.
Drain & Oven Cleaners
Caustic soda is the chief ingredient in drain and oven cleaners. Caustic soda is dangerous to human health and to the environment. It is an extremely dangerous eye and skin irritant. In many countries (including Australia) the caustic soda produced contains traces of mercury. Mercury is a heavy metal that bioaccumulates that is, it accumulates in the food chain and is toxic. Caustic soda used as a drain or oven cleaner results in the mercury entering the wastewater treatment system. When mercury is present in sewage it can not be used as fertiliser.
Most people think of eucalyptus oil as a harmless plant oil. But it can be very dangerous. Doses of as little as 15 mls can be fatal. It should be used very sparingly as it can kill not only us, but beneficial animals, plants, and micro-organisms.