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Green Cleaning vs. Chemicals In Household Products

There are many toxic chemicals in household products. You can use non-toxic cleaners instead, or mix up your own solutions to green cleaning.

Green Cleaning vs. Chemicals In Household Products

An extraordinary amount of shelf space in the grocery store is devoted to household cleaners, air fresheners, and other products intended to help you keep your house smelling and looking sparkly clean. But as you're achieving that shiny state, are you adding unwanted chemicals to your living space? If standard, popular household products are in your shopping cart, then the answer is yes.

In today's guest article, Alice Shabecoff, co-author of Poisoned for Profit, discusses the toxic chemicals lurking in those innocent-looking jugs and spray bottles. She also lists alternative, natural cleaning solutions for those who are ready to make the move to green cleaning.

~    ~    ~

Save Money and Your Family's Health

by Alice Shabecoff

No smart and caring parent would spend a small fortune to end up harming her child. But that's just what we do every time we enter a supermarket and come out with an armful of products intended to spiff up our homes.

We buy air fresheners, toilet cleaners, drain uncloggers, laundry fluffers, bug killers, countertop degreasers, bacteria-slaying soaps, silver shiners... and much more. In sum, an average of 23 different boxes, cartons, jars and bottles of house cleaning products, each with its distinct mission, crowd our cupboard shelves. Our typical expenditure is $15 a week. Household cleaning products have grown into a major industry, costing consumers $13.5 billion a year.

What's in these products is a mystery. Manufacturers are not required by law or regulation to tell us the ingredients. Attempts in Congress to require full disclosure labeling are opposed by the companies, which prefer limited and voluntary listings, perhaps on a website.

When you discover the ingredients lurking in these products, you understand why the manufacturers hide them behind the veil of "trade secrets." Of course, just because many of the ingredients are tongue-twisters that might bring back unpleasant memories from high school chemistry class, that doesn't mean they are dangerous. But scientific research has proven that these man-made chemicals concocted on a base of petroleum can reduce fertility, trigger cancer, and intensify asthma. The most disturbing news is that a pregnant woman's exposure may harm her fetus, affecting the child's brain and behavior as well as his body (though, to be accurate, science now agrees that mind-body are one).

Chemicals In Household Products


The chemicals in mothballs can cause liver and kidney damage, as well as cancer.

Glycol ethers, one of the chemicals commonly found in various household cleaners, are industrial solvents—used, for example, to clean gunk off machinery and computer chips. If a pregnant woman is exposed, even at low levels, her baby may suffer birth defects or damage to his developing testicles or central nervous system.

Even the commonly-used Comet Disinfectant Powder Cleanser releases 143 air contaminants. Seven (including chloroform, benzene and formaldehyde) can cause cancer; others are linked to asthma and allergies as well as harm to our reproductive and nervous systems. This discovery comes courtesy of independent lab tests commissioned by the Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit research organization.

Air fresheners turn out to be among the most toxic products in our homes. The chemical analysis of one of the leading sellers, sporting the scent of a "Hawaiian breeze," found this aerosol released 89 air contaminants. Its label disclosed only three. Of all the products tested, this "freshener" came in third place for polluting the air with ingredients linked to cancer, allergies, and reproductive harm; and if the exposed woman is pregnant, the ingredients could do damage to the fetal brain and nervous system. The plug-in variety contains "the most highly volatile chemical in the average home." Even air fresheners labeled "natural" contain harmful ingredients. "Natural" is a term without any standards behind it.

Dryer sheets, another winner of the most-toxic-substance award, coat fabric with a thin film of artificial perfumes whose chemical components are linked to liver damage and cancer.

The anti-bacterial chemical named triclosan, incorporated into household cleaners as well as plastic shoes, toothpaste and underwear disrupts hormone systems, in adults and children. When combined with chlorinated water, triclosan can transmute into the deadly chemical dioxin. (It's worth noting that triclosan is outlawed in many countries, including China.)

Chemicals In Household Cleaners / Natural Cleaners


We grab these cleaning products off the store shelves, convinced they work. Years of advertising have told us so. With our overworked schedules, we need to make it easy to get that sparkly clean.

The good news is, we don't need these toxic commercial products. Non-toxic picture of cleaning bottles products are available in natural food stores and online, but it's also easy to make a few basic products ourselves which work as well, if not better. Every ingredient you need is right there on the drug store or supermarket shelves. It's actually fun to concoct these cleaning alternatives, and rewarding to see the results. And there's so much less to worry about when it comes to long-term exposures or if a toddler comes across one of these products.

Next revelation: Contrary to what marketers would have you believe, we don't need a dedicated product for each separate component of our house, from shower tiles to floors to underwear. Think of the storage space that will be freed up by slimming down from 23 individual cleaners to just 8 basic ingredients, all very safe. Who couldn't use more storage space? Who can't think of a good use for the money saved?

Natural Cleaners / Alternative Cleaning Recipes / Green Cleaning


Basic ingredients to have on hand:

  • washing soda
  • borax
  • vegetable-based liquid castile soap (found in the laundry aisle)
  • hydrogen peroxide (drug store)
  • distilled white vinegar
  • lemons
  • olive oil (buy cheap variety)
  • baking soda (from your grocery store)

Buy a couple of spray bottles at the hardware or drug store (or re-use the ones the commercial products came in).

Here are some household products and the toxic chemicals in them. Natural green-cleaning alternatives are listed in the rightmost column.

Toxic vs. Natural Cleaning Products

  Item Ingredients Alternative  
  Air freshener, candle Acetaldehyde, ethylacetate, BHT 1, propylene glycol, 1,3-dichloro-2-propanol, phthalates Simmer cloves or cinnamon stick or vanilla in water for 5 minutes  
  Air freshener, plug-in Formaldehyde, methylene chloride, benzene, propane Ditto, or set out a bowl of dried flower petals  
  All purpose cleaning powder Formaldehyde, toluene, acetaldehyde, chloroform, benzene, and lots more chemicals Make a paste of equal parts baking soda or borax and warm water or white vinegar  
  Dryer sheets Alpha-terpineol, benzyl- and ethyl-acetate, pentane, phthalates, chloroform, and lots more Dryer ball, reusable; fabric softener alternatives  
  Furniture polish Nitrobenzene, morpholine 1/4 c olive oil, 1/4 c white vinegar, 2 t lemon juice  
  Glass/window cleaner Ammonia, butyl cellosolve, d-Limonene, glycol ethers, isobutane, triclosan, monoethanolamene 1/4 cup white vinegar in 1 qt warm water, add a squirt of lemon for scent  
  Laundry detergent Phthalates, monoethanolamene, alkyl- and nonyl-phenol ethoxylates, aluminum hydroxide Add 1/2 c borax or 1/2 cup baking soda to phosphate-free liquid Soak clothes in hydrogen peroxide for 1/2 hour to whiten.  
  Mothballs Naphthalene, para-dichlorobenzene Wet clean (uses no perchloroethylene), then store  
  Shower scrubbing bubbles Glycol ethers, sodium lauryl sulfates Borax and water, applied with a scrubbing pad  
  Tile and grout cleaner Glycol ethers, monoethanolamine, sulfuric and hydrochloric acids Mix one part borax, one part baking soda, one part vinegar to make a paste  
  Toilet bowl cleaner Fragrance/phthalates, sulfuric acid, lye, ammonia, naphthalene, muriatic acid, lye Borax; or baking soda and vinegar; or flat cola; let sit for 1 hr  

P.S. My own favorite recipe for my least favorite task, cleaning oven racks: Put them in your bathtub, cover with water plus 1/2 cup dishwasher detergent, soak a few hours or overnight. Amazing.

Chemicals In Household Products / Green Cleaning


1. Host a Green Cleaning Party — Buy a green cleaning party kit and hold a house party with your friends. This is lots more fun than 'tupperware' parties used to be, and a great deal better for your family and the environment. The kit is made and sold by Women's Voices for the Earth.

2. Get Additional Recipes for Green Cleaners

3. Get Information on Ingredients in Other Products in Your Home

  • — a searchable database of 900 consumer goods, from cars, pet products to children's car seats, back-to-school items, and women's handbags.
  • Cosmetics Database — an eye-opening database of ingredients in cosmetics and other personal care products
  • — helps consumers make better choices when purchasing toys and other children's products

About The Author

Alice Shabecoff Alice Shabecoff is a freelance journalist focusing on family and consumer topics. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post, Christian Science Monitor, and International Herald Tribune, among other publications. She was executive director of the National Consumers League, the country's oldest consumer organization, and executive director of the national nonprofit Community Information Exchange. Her books include Poisoned for Profit and A Guide to Careers in Community Development.


Poisoned for Profit

How Toxins Are Making Our Children Chronically Ill,  by Philip Shabecoff, Alice Shabecoff

book cover for Poisoned for Profit, Philip Shabecoff, Alice Shabecoff, 4/30/2010 Ubiquitous exposures to toxins are contributing to increasing rates of birth defects, asthma, cancer, and other serious illnesses, especially among children. The onslaught comes from manufacturing processes, power generation, nuclear waste, heavy metals, even consumer products. Why do we let corporations weasel their way around regulations, sabotage investigations, hire scientists to skew data on toxic impacts, and fend off government controls with powerful lobbying groups? It's time for families to fight back by ridding their homes of toxic products and through citizen action. Poisoned for Profit shows how. See book on

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  book cover for Slow Death by Rubber Duck, by Rick Smith, Bruce Lourie, 1/5/2010

How the Toxic Chemistry of Everyday Life Affects Our Health

Pollution is no longer just about belching smokestacks and ugly sewer pipes—now, it's personal. The most dangerous pollution, it turns out, comes from commonplace items in our homes and workplaces. To prove this point, for one week authors Rick Smith and Bruce Lourie ingested and inhaled a host of things that surround all of us. Using their own bodies as the reference point to tell the story of pollution in our modern world, they expose the miscreant corporate giants who manufacture the toxins, the weak-kneed government officials who let it happen, and the effects on people and families across the globe.

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Creating a Cleaner, Greener, Safer Home

All parents want a healthy, environmentally sound home for their child, but where do they start? This book has practical, inexpensive, and easy lifestyle advice for every stage of parenting including: advice for parents who are expecting; info on which plastics and baby products to avoid; tips on food and snack choices; info on safe and unsafe cleaning and personal-care products; ways to minimize allergens, dust, and lead; thoughts on outdoor spaces; tips on pets and pest control. Also included is a 27-page shopper's guide to the best quality, most trusted products every home needs.

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Non-Toxic and Chemical-Free Methods for a Clean and Healthy Home, 2nd Edition   (by Mary Findley, Linda Formichelli)

This book focuses on cleaning the green way—naturally, with no chemicals. It guides you room by room, explaining how to clean thoroughly and efficiently in manner that is good for your health and your world. Included are tips on choosing cleaners, cleaning difficult areas, changing to green personal-care products, and more. Become a green cleaning machine!


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"Air fresheners turn out to be among the most toxic products in our homes.... Even air fresheners labeled "natural" contain harmful ingredients. "Natural" is a term without any standards behind it."

— Alice Shabecoff, author of Poisoned for Profit

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This clean-building professional's tips on how to use natural cleaning agents will save you money and keep the toxic chemicals found in most "normal" cleaners out of your home.  Watch natural cleaning products video.


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