Household cleaning products contain chemicals that can burn lungs, cause asthma, and pollute the air. Why's it so hard to stop using them?
When I first moved into my apartment, I bought one cleaning product: a big bottle of a lemon verbena-scented, environmentally friendly cleaner called Mrs. Meyer’s Clean Day. It served me well for awhile, but over time I've begun to accumulate harder-core chemicals. A houseguest bought some air-freshener. Toilet cleaner seemed necessary. A layer of grime stuck on the stove required Easy-Off oven cleaner to wipe clean.
It’s this last bottle that both terrifies and fascinates me. Spray just a little onto a grease spot that has resisted all cleaning efforts and within a couple of minutes, the gunk wipes away easily. But one time I accidentally caught a whiff of the stuff. It was the first time I ever understood what “burn your lungs” means. I felt like I was choking.
So I wasn’t surprised to find Easy-Off in the Hall of Shame [PDF] from the Environmental Working Group’s cleaners database project. EWG, which produces that handy Dirty Dozen list of foods to buy organic, is compiling information about the toxic chemicals in thousands of cleaners: The Hall of Shame highlights just a few of the most noxious products they’ve identified so far. The database is intended to help consumers, who are generally on their own when it comes to judging the safety of household cleaning products. "Though many Americans assume that government bodies oversee the safety of the multi-billion-dollar household cleaning products industry, it is largely unregulated," the group says. Companies aren't even required to list ingredients on cleaner bottles.
Among the worst offenders EWG identified: "mystery mixtures" like some Target and Walmart brand cleaners, which list no ingredients or use only vague terms like "solvent"; all major brands of air fresheners, which are fatal if directly inhaled; spray cleaners like Clorox, Fantastik, Febreze, Formula 409, Lysol and others, which contain chemicals that can cause asthma attacks.
Even products labeled "green" make the list for hiding hazardous ingredients. The ingredients in my Mrs. Meyer's cleaner, for example, include the vague "anionic surfactants derived from plant sources," "essential oils of lemon," and fir needles. It didn't make EWG’s list, but I’m suspicious nonetheless. Although it exudes an air of environmental friendliness, it makes no actual claims to safety or environmental friendliness, a problem EWG says is common.“That the oils are derived from citrus implies safety,” the report says of one product, but citrus and pine oil-based compounds can react with ozone pollution to create formaldehyde. A government board in California has already advised against using these sorts of cleaners on smoggy days.
Why keep these cleaners around at all, when they’re so dangerous, both to the environment and my personal health? I know that baking soda, vinegar, and water should take care of most household cleaning needs, but I can’t get over how well the chemical cleaners work.
My nasty run-in with the oven cleaner convinced me to try cleaning out the inside of my oven with baking soda and water. After hours spent kneeling on the floor, pasty cleaning mixture dripping everywhere, I got a good portion of the gunk off. But not all of it.
Maybe I’ll get better with practice, but I can’t help thinking how easy the same job would be with the aid of those creepy chemicals. If I do resort to the oven cleaner, though, I’m glad to be going into the job aware of the potentially hazardous choice I’m making. I’m going to open the windows wide, put on rubber gloves, and follow every last instruction on the bottle to keep me safe. And when I think about it that way, baking soda starts to look like the better option, after all.