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Five Steps to Safe Cleaning

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Like many people, you probably have a cabinet of cleaning products. A spray for this, a gel for that, a powder for something els.

Like many people, you probably have a cabinet of cleaning products. A spray for this, a gel for that, a powder for something else. But do you know how dangerous these products might be, and how they affect your family's health and the environment?

Household cleaners are the main source of indoor air pollution. They are also the main cause of accidental poisonings in children and pets and have been linked to significant environmental damage. Avoid these hazards at home by following these steps for safe cleaning.

1. Read labels

Start by reading the labels. In Canada, WHMIS (the Workplace Hazardous Material Information System) requires products to be labelled "poisonous" when a single exposure may be fatal or cause serious or permanent damage to health. However, labelling is required only for products with acute health risks. Companies are not required to research or label their products for the potential health hazards of prolonged or repeated exposure. To learn more about the chemical ingredients and health hazards in your household cleaners, search the product's material data safety sheet at msds.com. A free account is required.

2. Follow instructions

Follow label instructions carefully. Pay special attention to warnings about storage and ventilation. Industry Canada's Canadian Consumer Handbook (strategis.ic.gc.ca) advises that some products can turn into deadly poisons when mixed with other products, stored improperly, or used in poorly ventilated areas. Locked storage cabinets are the safest option.

3. Choose unscented

Scents are another factor to consider as they can be respiratory irritants, especially for those with asthma or chemical sensitivities. Whenever possible, select unscented products. According to a 1986 report by the US House of Representatives Committee on Science and Technology, 95 percent of chemicals used in fragrances are petroleum based and include chemicals known to cause cancer, birth defects, central nervous system disorders, and allergic reactions. Unscented products are also recommended for those with sensitive skin.

4. Avoid antibacterial cleaners

Antibacterial cleaners create an "over clean" environment that actually weakens immunity and increases susceptibility to illness, including childhood asthma, allergies, eczema, and other autoimmune disorders. Antibacterial cleaners may also encourage the development of resistant bacteria, or "super bugs." If you are concerned about germs in your dishrag or sponge, establish a regular routine of boiling them for two minutes before use.

5. Reduce packaging

Remember that it is not just the chemicals that harm our environment. In fact, most of the environmental damage from household cleaners comes from excessive packaging. To reduce garbage, buy concentrated products with less packaging and recycle as many paper, metal, and glass containers as possible. Use squeeze and spray bottles rather than aerosols. And visit your health food store, where you'll find environmentally friendly cleaners in reusable, bulk containers.

Avoiding the dangers of commercial household cleaners is easier than you think. Armed with a little information, you can make the choices that will make a real difference in the health of both your family and our planet.

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