In the last post, I talked about how our food can be healing or harmful, and ways to detoxify our diets from the additives, preservatives, and chemicals that can affect our vitality and longevity. Today I’m going to address some very common household products that pose threats to our health.
The average household contains about 62 toxic chemicals. Almost every toilet cleaner, scrubbing powder, and “surface” spray or wipe on the market today contains toxins, fragrances, carcinogens, and irritants that may be making you sick. Some of the most toxic things inside our homes are usually things we think nothing of using daily to polish, clean, and brighten. We’re exposed to them regularly — from the phthalates in synthetic fragrances to the noxious fumes found in oven cleaners, ingredients in these conventional products have been linked to asthma, cancers, reproductive disorders, hormone disruption, and neurotoxicity.
From acute hazards like skin or respiratory irritation, watery eyes, and chemical burns, to chronic effects such as cancer, endocrine disruption, or damage to internal organs: no matter how “effectively” these products work, they are not worth the health risks they pose. Here are the chemicals to avoid, as well as other suggestions for maintaining a safe, clean, and healthy home.
Found in: Many fragranced household products, such as air fresheners, dish soap, even toilet paper. Because of proprietary laws, companies don’t have to disclose what’s in their scents, so you won’t find phthalates on a label.
Health Risks: Phthalates are known endocrine disruptors. Men with higher phthalate compounds in their blood have lower sperm counts than average. While phthalate exposure mainly occurs through inhalation, it can also happen through skin contact with scented soaps or clothing that has been cleaned in them. Unlike the digestive system, the skin has no safeguards against toxins. This means absorbed chemicals go straight to our organs.
Perchloroethylene or “PERC”
Found in: Dry-cleaning solutions, spot removers, and carpet and upholstery cleaners.
Health Risks: Perc is a neurotoxin and a “possible carcinogen” as well. People who live in residential buildings where dry cleaners are located, or work in a dry cleaning facility, have reported dizziness, loss of coordination, and other symptoms that suggest neurotoxicity.
Found in: Most “antibacterial” liquid dishwashing detergents and hand soaps, as well as some mouthwashes and toothpastes.
Health Risks: Triclosan is an aggressive antibacterial agent that can promote the growth of drug-resistant bacteria. The American Medical Association has found no evidence that antimicrobials make us healthier or safer. The rampant use of antibacterial products is disconcerting to say the least—microbes are increasingly developing resistance, and not just to these common household items, but also to real antibiotics that we need to treat disease and infection. Triclosan is a probable carcinogen and a known endocrine disruptor. It was detected in 57.6% of stream water samples from across the U.S. in 2002. In addition to triclosan, some disinfectant cleaners contain alkylphenol ethoxylates (APEs), which are also suspected endocrine disruptors that don’t readily biodegrade.
Quarternary Ammonium Compounds, or “QUATS”
Found in: Fabric softener liquids and sheets, most household cleaners labeled “antibacterial.”
Health Risks: Quats are also a type of antimicrobial, and thus pose the same problem as triclosan by contributing to the antibiotic-resistant bacteria problem. They’re also a skin irritant and can cause contact dermatitis. There is evidence that healthy people who are exposed to quats on a regular basis develop asthma as a result.
Found in: Window, kitchen, and multipurpose cleaners.
Health Risks: This belongs in the category of “glycol ethers,” a set of powerful solvents. Although law does not require 2-butoxyethanol to be listed on a product’s label, it causes sore throats when inhaled, and can contribute to narcosis, pulmonary edema, and severe liver and kidney damage.
Found in: Polishing agents for bathroom fixtures, sinks and jewelry; also in glass cleaner.
Health Risks: Ammonia is a powerful irritant that can affect people with asthma, elderly people with lung issues, and anyone with chronic breathing problems. Frequent exposure leads to chronic bronchitis and asthma. Ammonia can also create a poisonous gas if mixed with bleach.
Found in: Scouring powders, toilet bowl cleaners, mildew removers, laundry whiteners, household tap water.
Health Risks: Chlorine can be inhaled because of fumes it produces, or can be absorbed through the skin. Exposure to chlorine can irritate the respiratory tract and some studies suggest it also disrupts thyroid function.
Found in: Oven cleaners and drain openers.
Health Risks: Otherwise known as lye, sodium hydroxide is extremely corrosive and can be inhaled or absorbed through skin: If it touches your skin or gets in your eyes, it can cause severe burns. Inhaling sodium hydroxide can cause a sore throat that lasts for days.
Products to Throw Out
Air fresheners. Conventional air fresheners contain hundreds of poisonous substances that could make you and your family very sick: infertility, brain damage, and chronic illness have been associated with the compounds in commercial air fresheners. Most of them contain phthalates and are also loaded with other volatile organic compounds (VOCs) as well, which can cause cancer or interfere with reproduction, respiration, and cellular regeneration.
Great alternatives to aerosol or plug-in air fresheners are essential oil burners and diffusers. Make your own scent blend after learning more about essential oils and their uses. Diffusers work wonders for people suffering from colds, respiratory ailments, skin conditions, and allergies. Add “Thieves” (a blend of clove, lemon, cinnamon bark, eucalyptus, and rosemary essential oils) to your diffuser to purify the air when you have the flu, a cold, or respiratory ailment. Thieves is antiviral, antiseptic, and antibacterial.
More information regarding specific blends for these and other ailments can be found online (this is a good starting point) or at the library. Consider also getting some (or some more) houseplants, which naturally clean the air.
Candles. Simply put, many scented candles are toxic. Almost half of all scented candles on the market today contain lead wiring in their wicks, which is released into the air upon burning, leading to hormone disruption, behavioral disorders, and various other health problems.
Be wary of candles made with paraffin wax, which generates two highly toxic compounds when burned: benzene and toluene, both of which are known carcinogens. Many scented candles contain artificial fragrances and dyes, which end up in your lungs when you burn them.
(Some) Art supplies. Some epoxy materials, glues, acrylic paints and solvents, drawing utensils, and other supplies used to create art contain chemicals linked to allergies, organ damage, and cancer. Manufacturers are not required to provide an ingredients list on art supplies. We recommend that you purchase only products that are certified by the Art and Creative Materials Institute (ACMI), which undergo rigorous evaluations by independent toxicologists to make sure that they are safe for everyone, including small children.
Shower curtains. The average plastic shower curtain radiates harmful VOCs, which damage the respiratory tract, central nervous system, liver, and kidneys. If your shower curtain has that unique “new shower curtain smell,” it is likely releasing deadly chemicals—up to 108 of them—that are harming you and your family. Stick with only non-toxic, PVC-free shower curtains: opt for ones made with natural materials like hemp, linen, birch, organic cotton, or PEVA.
Laundry Detergents. Loaded with toxic chemicals and endocrine disruptors, most name-brand scented detergents leave residues on clothes that are absorbed into skin and evaporated into the air we breathe. For instance, Tide contains:
- phenols (established endocrine disruptors, of which BPA is the most notorious)
- synthetic detergents, often composed of petrochemicals
- toxic phthalates
- optical brighteners, made from benzene, a definite carcinogen
- phosphates, which break down minerals and render detergent more effective, but degrade the natural environment
Human skin will absorb 75% of whatever fat-soluble substances are on its surface within 26 seconds, especially during perspiration. Studies suggest that most detergents leave behind the equivalent of .2 pounds of residue on clothing after a wash. This equals about 5 pounds per year of the chemicals listed above! And it doesn’t stop at the washing machine. Phosphate-based detergents contaminate fresh water, are toxic to aquatic organisms and algae, and persist in the environment. Opt for a fragrance-free, biodegradable soap for clean laundry that is safe for you, your family, and the planet. Try Sonett Laundry Liquid, GreenShield Laundry Detergent, Eco-Me Laundry Detergent, Tandi’s Naturals, Grab Green Laundry Detergent, or Zum Clean Laundry Soap.
Other Home Cleaning Products
A sensible approach to housecleaning and attention to labels will help you to avoid hidden dangers. Most household cleaning needs can be met safely with a sturdy scrubbing sponge and simple ingredients like water, liquid castile soap (Dr. Bronner’s), vinegar, lemon juice, or baking soda for scrubbing grease and grime. You can clean and polish just about every surface in your home using the tips found here: http://www.versatilevinegar.org/usesandtips.html. Add essential oils like lemongrass, basil, or grapefruit to your vinegar solution for added disinfecting power and a more pleasant smell.
A note on antibacterial and disinfectant products: Disinfectants are literally pesticides that target and kill bacteria. Although they temporarily kill germs on surfaces, they cannot kill germs in the air, and they do not provide long-lasting disinfection.
While we definitely want to eradicate some types of bacteria, such as Salmonella and E.coli, an excessive fear of germs is leading to serious global consequences. Overuse and misuse of antibiotics in medicine and in livestock, as well as rampant use of antibacterial soaps and other germ-killing products, are all contributing to a rise in antibiotic-resistant bacteria. This means one of the physician’s most effective tools of last resort is no longer a sure fix if you get seriously sick.
Unless you have a compromised immune system, or an illness that makes you especially vulnerable to infection, you don’t need to disinfect most household needs. To avoid food-borne illness: Wash all foods thoroughly before preparation, and be sure to soak leafy greens, rinsing at least three times. Cook meat and eggs thoroughly (no rare beef or over-easy scrambles). Eat only fresh fish, and thaw frozen meats in the refrigerator. Wash all cutting boards, dishes, knives and other surfaces that touch raw meat or eggs in hot, soapy water before using to prepare other raw foods. Refrigerate all food within two hours of cooking.
I hope this helps you make informed decisions regarding what to look for and what to avoid for the sake of you and your family’s health. Call the clinic with any questions, and as always, be well.
Sources used for this article were taken from: theprairiehomestead.com