Janice Bennett and Nathan Livingston
Its right up there with godliness: we spray, wipe, and wash our way to healthier, happier homes. Unfortunately, fresh smelling air and shiny countertops might be one of the biggest health hazards you and your family face on a daily basis.
It’s right up there with godliness: we spray, wipe, and wash our way to healthier, happier homes. Unfortunately, fresh smelling air and shiny countertops might be one of the biggest health hazards you and your family face on a daily basis.
Recent conservative estimates have shown that one and a half to two million deaths per year worldwide can be attributed to indoor air pollution. The biggest culprit, at least in North America, is cleaning agents. The health risks from the chemicals in these cleaners include respiratory diseases and almost daily exposure to carcinogens.
While many chemicals are nontoxic in small amounts, once diluted, or on their own, when they’re mixed with other chemicals already in the air, the combination can be toxic.
Sneaky Clean Chemicals
Cleaning agents are either evaporative (volatile) or nonvolatile substances. The main toxins presented by the former grouping are known as volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which have different “time-concentration profiles.” These compounds may not be toxic when you spray them, but when left to their own devices and combined with chemicals and particles in the environment, a residual toxic cocktail is formed.
A study conducted by the University of California, Berkeley, measured indoor air pollution from common products. Published in Environmental Science and Technology (May 2006), the study calls for more research into what it identified as stealth chemicals in indoor air. These are time-sensitive substances that were previously not considered health risks, in part because of the difficulty in measuring their real-life impact in laboratory settings. These chemicals lay in wait, becoming toxic only when combined with ozone.
Not Just About the (thinning) Layer
Ozone, found in higher concentrations in urban air as a result of smog, comes into our homes from outdoors, but it is also produced indoors by machines like copiers or printers. Especially dangerous sources are so-called air purifiers that disperse ozone into the indoor environment.
For more information, see an article published in Environmental Health Perspectives (October 2006) entitled “Ozone’s Impact on Public Health: Contributions from Indoor Exposures to Ozone and Products of Ozone-Initiated Chemistry” online at medscape.com/viewarticle/547521 (registration required but free).
Why Johnny can’t Breathe
Of those close to two million estimated deaths per year attributed to indoor air pollution, a study published in The International Journal of Tuberculosis and Lung Disease (December 2004) suggests that approximately one million occur in children aged five years or younger. These deaths were due to acute respiratory infections, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and lung cancer. The full text of the study, “Indoor air pollution and airway disease,” is available free online through a search on ingentaconnect.com.
One of the byproducts of the cleaning product/ozone combination is formaldehyde. No longer just for science-class frogs, formaldehyde is common in our homes and schools. Researchers are seeing a strong link between respiratory problems and formaldehyde, which is considered a potential carcinogen.
The solution? A good start is getting rid of ozone-producing sprays and highly reactive chemical cleaning agents. The old standbys of baking soda, vinegar, and soap (not detergent) worked for our grandparents and can also serve to improve our children’s health.
A rule of thumb for using cleaning agents in your home is: “When in doubt, leave it out.” When you can’t find a safe substitute for a toxic cleaner, reconsider. How important is it to remove that juice stain from Johnny’s coverlet?
Clean but not Toxic
For a list of simple and safe cleaning options, see the Environmental Health Association of Nova Scotia’s Guide to Less Toxic Products at lesstoxicguide.ca/index.asp?fetch=household and
“Safe Substitutes at Home: Nontoxic Household Products” at es.epa.gov/techinfo/facts/safe-fs.html.
See also “Outdoor, Indoor, and Personal Exposure to VOCs in Children” at pubmedcentral.nih.gov/articlerender.fcgi?artid=1247565.
To read about indoor pollutants and ozone, see “Indoor Secondary Pollutants from Household Product Emissions in the Presence of Ozone” at pubs.acs.org/cgibin/sample.cgi/esthag/2006/40/i14/html/es052198z.html.