Home Air Quality The Truth About Cleaning Chemicals and ‘Green’ Cleaning

The Truth About Cleaning Chemicals and ‘Green’ Cleaning


One of the legacies of the Industrial Revolution is the introduction of cleaning chemicals into the marketplace. Since WWII, more than 75,000 industrial chemicals have been registered with the EPA. Of those, less than 2 percent have been tested for toxicity, birth defects, and cancer. Moreover, chemical companies are under no legal or regulatory obligation to study the long term health effects their products have on the human body, nor are they required to fully disclose all of the ingredients in their products. Citing proprietary privilege, they only report on active ingredients. This accounts for less than 5 percent of the components found in their products.

Although chemical companies are not held accountable for the ingredients they use in their products, there is an array of documented evidence that supports the belief that prolonged use of cleaning chemicals is harmful to the human body.

Researchers claim that the human body is the unwelcome host to 300 different synthetic chemicals. Even newborn babies have traces of chemicals in their bodies—chemicals that have been passed on from their mothers. Scientists have also catalogued traces of toxins in the average human body that did not exist 70 years ago. Easily absorbed through the skin, and inhaled through the lungs, chemicals travel via the blood stream and are often stored in fatty tissue where it remains indefinitely. Studies indicate that within 26 seconds following exposure to cleaners, traces of these chemicals can be found in every organ in the body.

A 15-year study released by the Toronto Indoor Air Commission concluded that women who work in the home have a 54 percent higher death rate from cancer than women who work outside the home. The results pointed to cleaning chemicals as being largely responsible. Further research indicates that cancer rates have more than doubled in the last 40 years. In only 20 years, brain cancer has increased by 40 percent in children. Since 1982, there has been a 26 percent rise in breast cancer. Among other known causes, long lists of components found in cleaning chemicals are also being targeted as likely culprits.

Asthma Frequency on the Rise

Both the Canadian and American Lung Associations report that there is a significant increase in the prevalence of asthma. Since 1980, the Canadian Lung Assn. reports a 600 percent increase. Along with air pollution and various other factors, the association has identified cleaning chemicals as potential asthma triggers. Further, a study conducted by Barcelona’s Municipal Institute of Medical Research concluded that 12 percent of women who work as cleaners suffered from respiratory problems, compared to 5 percent of women who did not.

In late 2006, CBS News reported on research conducted by two scientists relating to the effects of industrial chemicals on the developing brain. Following decades of research, Dr Grandjean from the Harvard School of Public Health in Boston and Dr. Landrigan of Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York identified 202 potentially harmful chemicals they suspect to be responsible for the upsurge of Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD), Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and autism in children.

The science is compelling. Accordingly, consumers are generating change by simply choosing safer products. The chemical companies have risen to the occasion and are producing “green” cleaning products quickly. Some corporations are reported to have spent tens of millions of dollars in the quest to develop environmentally friendly products. The chemical giants stand to reap profits in the hundreds of millions each year.

The green movement is growing rapidly. Retailers, hotels, construction contractors, chemical companies and even banks have joined the frenzied rush to impact their bottom lines by marketing themselves as stewards to the environment. Directing my attention to the chemical industry, a few factors stand out. To start with, the information on chemical labels is not verified by any independent body, there is no consistency and it is confusing to the consumer.

For example, claims made by some chemical manufacturers state that their products are free of CFCs. The average consumer is perhaps not aware that CFCs were banned globally by the Montreal Protocol 10 years ago, thus rendering this claim as unnecessary, misleading, and redundant.

The Meaning of ‘Nontoxic’

More significantly, some companies promote their cleaners as “nontoxic” or with “low toxicity.” These claims are meaningless. No government or official guideline exists for this term. Furthermore, the EPA regards these statements as false and misleading.

Various green cleaners contain questionable ingredients. To name a few, Hexylene Glycol and Diethylene Glycol Monobutyl Ether are listed as active ingredients in some green cleaners. These components are suspected liver toxicants, neurotoxicants, reproductive toxicants, respiratory toxicants, and skin and sense organ toxins. Adding to the confusion, some chemical ingredients can have as many as 30 pseudonyms.

Industrial cleaners must be registered with the EPA if they make disinfection claims. Without exception, all must be accompanied with a Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS). This document lists ingredients, health risks, first aid measures, handling and storage, just to name a few. MSDS sheets contain critical information for the end user. They provide valuable information that guide workers through the safe handling of their products, and highlight the health hazards associated with the use of these cleaners. Workers rely heavily on the accuracy of the information they are given. However, there is a lack of consistency on the information that should be standard on MSDS Sheets. In many cases, essential information is completely omitted; some MSDS sheets date back 20 years and show no evidence of ever having been updated.

Chemical companies commonly use terms such as “green,” “environmentally friendly,” and “environmentally preferable” when marketing their green product lines. These claims have lulled the average consumer into a state of false security. Green is not simple, nor is it always logical. The truth is that not all are created equal. However, the vast majority of people accept at face value the claims made by the chemical companies. This includes the seasoned executive housekeepers charged with preserving the health and safety of their staff.

Notwithstanding the above, not all is doom and gloom. There is a positive side. There are responsible corporate citizens out there, and the following guidelines will help you recognize them.

As a general rule of thumb, they’re companies that have well documented evidence of their genuine commitment to the environment. When accessing their websites you immediately sense their passion for the environment. The information they provide is easy to understand, and educational. They aim to inform the consumer, and are fierce disciples of “full disclosure.” Because they have nothing to hide, they readily provide easy access to their MSDS sheets directly on their websites and guide the consumer through the important things to look for on MSDS sheets. In essence, they de-code this complicated document which is filled with scientific jargon that only a precious few understand.