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Living for the Long Haul: How healthy is your home environment?

What home products may be harmful to your health?

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In our northern climate, winter’s icy blasts force us all to spend a great deal of time indoors. However, we typically give little thought to the indoor environment in which we live and to how healthy (or unhealthy) that environment might be for our families. Let us consider some common household products that may be unhealthy for us and potentially harmful to the external environment as well.

This is a huge topic. First of all, there are products available for every conceivable household task and we’re constantly encouraged by product manufacturers to buy a separate cleaning product for each household surface and each appliance. As we began to research these products, most commercial products contain one or more toxic chemicals including carcinogens, reproductive toxins, mood-altering chemicals, skin and eye irritants and hormone disruptors. The absence of federal regulations that require safety testing for household cleaning products further complicates evaluation of just how toxic these products might be. We will limit this article to a discussion of a few products used by many of us.

A variety of common household products give off toxic fumes. This is particularly true for products that are applied from spray or aerosol containers. Closing up our houses in winter means that these fumes remain trapped in the house and are breathed in over an extended period of time. Rug, carpet and upholstery cleaners contain a variety of toxic chemicals that give off fumes that have been linked to cancer, liver damage and a variety of other symptoms. Air fresheners contain similar chemicals. Volatile organic compounds (VOC’s) are present in numerous household products including paints, varnishes, waxes, disinfectants, cleaning products, permanent markers, hobby supplies, glues and adhesives. VOC’s have been linked to cancer and liver, kidney and nervous system diseases. In addition to the above concerns, these fumes are thought to predispose one to asthma and other respiratory problems.

Bathroom and drain cleaners tend to be highly toxic. Drain cleaners frequently contain sodium hypochlorite (lye) and sulfuric acid. Both can cause chemical burns if exposed to the eyes or skin, and produce dangerous fumes. Bathroom cleaners can contain bleach or ammonia. Bleach is toxic to eyes and skin. Further, cleaners should never be mixed. Mixing a cleaner that contains bleach with a cleaner that contains ammonia results in production of chloramine gas that can cause serious breathing problems and could be fatal.

Many of the chemicals in cleaning products are long-lived and end up causing problems in our external environment. Sewage treatment plants are designed to treat human waste but do not process chemical waste. Therefore, these chemicals are released into our rivers, lakes and on farm land. Phosphates from detergents cause algae blooms in lakes and ponds resulting in death of fish and other marine life. Bleach, when flushed, can be converted to organochlorines that are toxic to aquatic life and take hundreds of years to decompose. Triclosan is a pesticide found in antimicrobial products that is highly toxic to aquatic animals.

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So what can be done to improve the quality of our indoor environment and reduce pollution of our external environment? Organic, plant-based cleaning products, that do not contain toxic chemicals, are available at local stores and online. One should read the contents carefully because even some “organic” cleaners add preservatives or fragrances that may be toxic. Additionally, one can make cleaning products from common household ingredients. Common ingredients include distilled white vinegar, bicarbonate of soda (bakers soda) and plant-based soaps like castile soap. Castile soap is made from hemp, coconut, avocado or olive oil and is free of toxins. Recipes for making your own cleaning products can be found in books or online. It is amazing how simple they are to make for multiple uses, and it reduces the amount of plastic containers you have in your home.

All of us have routines for cleaning and use products that we have found to work well for us. However, if those products are potentially harmful to our families’ health as well as to the environment, we should consider making some changes. Blaming the large corporations for producing harmful products won’t protect our families but changing some of our purchasing and cleaning habits might. And, when enough of us refuse to buy these harmful products, the large impersonal multinational corporations will produce cleaning products that are safe for our families and our environment, not because they care about us but because they care about their bottom line.

(References to all factual information quoted provided on request and comments and questions are encouraged: weiss005@umn.edu)

Douglas J. Weiss and Barb Mann own Balsam Moon in Pine River, a spiritual place of peace, sustainability and renewal.

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