Safer Spring Cleaning

Many common household cleaning products contain chemicals that can be linked to asthma, cancer, hormonal disruption, developmental and reproductive disorders, and neurological toxicity. They are sold without being required to disclose information about safety. Here is a partial list of some of the most common offenders.

The chemical: Pthalates. These chemicals maintain the fragrance in scented products, and are also added to plastics to keep them flexible and resilient. They are found in vinyl (floors, pipes and furniture), plastic packaging, toys, shower curtains, detergents, dish soap, personal hygiene products (soap, shampoo, deodorant, nail polish and hair spray) and even toilet paper.

The problem: Pthalates are endocrine disruptors and interfere with cell replication, thus causing developmental and reproductive problems. Pthalate exposure is encountered mostly by inhalation, but they are also well-absorbed through the skin (transdermal), bypassing most of the body’s natural mechanisms that sequester toxins safely for processing, and get stored in the organs.

The solution: It is now quite easy to find unscented versions of most products. A few plants and an essential oil diffuser (or opening the window) are great ways to freshen up a room.

The chemical: Triclosan. This is an antibacterial agent found in dish and hand soaps, cosmetics, toothpastes and deodorant labeled as “antibacterial”. It is often infused in toys and kitchenware. Triclosan and other antibacterial agents have to be disclosed on a label by law.

The problem: Triclosan is linked to endocrine and immune dysfunction; however, the bigger concern with antibacterial soaps is that they are overusing our bacterial defenses and creating bacteria that are resistant to both household antibacterials and medical antibiotics.

The solution: Simple soaps and detergents with short ingredient lists are effective in most situations, especially in the home.

The chemical: Ammonia. This powerful irritant is common in glass cleaners and polishes.

The problem: Ammonia is a naturally occurring substance that evaporates easily and leaves a nice sparkle, but also makes for instant lung irritation. Mixing ammonia and bleach will create a poison gas, so be careful.

The solution: Cheap vodka will lend the same sparkle without the pain, and toothpaste makes an excellent metal polish.

The chemical: Chlorine. The main component of bleach, chlorine is a common addition to toilet bowl cleaners, laundry whiteners, scouring powders, mildew removers and of course, tap water.

The problem: Exposure is ubiquitous; we get exposed by using the cleaners through inhalation and transdermally, but also through drinking and bathing in unfiltered municipal water. Like ammonia, acute (temporary) exposure to concentrated chlorine is irritating to the lungs and skin; chronic (long-term) exposure can lead to asthma and bronchitis. Unlike ammonia, chlorine is a halide, like iodine, and thus a serious thyroid function disrupter.

The solution: Bon Ami, baking soda, vinegar and borax powder work well for most uses. Chlorine-free, oxygen-based powders are readily available on the market. Simple filters on drinking water and in the shower will reduce exposure through tap water.

The chemical: Sodium hydroxide. Lye used to be one of the main ingredient in what our ancestors called soap, back when it could cause burns to eyes and other mucus membranes. The corrosive chemical called sodium hydroxide is the active part of lye, and these days, we mostly use it for oven cleaners and drain openers.

The problem: Breathing too much Easy-Off or Drano fumes can give us a sore throat that lasts for days.

The solution: Baking soda and elbow grease will clean any oven, and enzyme-based drain openers and mechanical drain snakes work well for any clog.

The chemical: Quaternary ammonium compounds (QUATS). Fabric softeners, liquid and sheets, along with household cleaners with an “antibacterial” function on the label use QUATS, which are more widespread in industrial kitchen and hospital settings.

The problem: As another antibacterial substance, QUATS have the same effect triclosan does by way of creating resistant microbe strains. They are potent skin irritants, and there is good evidence that they contribute to asthma. Dryer sheets also infuse everything with micro-particles of fiberglass that are not toxic, but inhalation of fiberglass is bad in the long run.

The solution: Instead of using fabric softeners, adding a bit of white vinegar to the rinse cycle will remove soap residue and prevent static cling (along with dryer balls). A mix of white vinegar, a few drops of tea tree oil and water in a spray bottle makes for a fine, inexpensive, QUAT-like cleaner.

The chemical: 2-butoxyethanol. This is a sweet-smelling solvent that’s a cousin of antifreeze, a glycol esther. Found in many window, kitchen and multipurpose cleaners, 2-butoxyethanol is not legally required to be listed on the consumer label, even if the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) requires safety precautions in industrial use.

The problem: According to the Material Safetly Data Sheet (safety info sheet) for glycol esther, inhalation causes acute sore throat and contributes to pulmonary edema, and liver and kidney damage over time. Using one of these cleaners in a confined space like a bathroom can result in exposure exceeding workplace safety standards.

The solution: Ventilation is always important, even with non-toxic products. Use vinegar and newsprint for windows and mirrors, and simple cleaners like Bon Ami for all-purpose cleaning.

Thor Conner, ND, LMT, is co-owner of World Tree Natural Medicine, located at 17W 703-F Butterfield Rd., in Oakbrook Terrace.
For more information and appointments, call 630-359-5522 or visit



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