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Getting the Dirt on Household Cleaning Products


You’ve spent hours cleaning your house. Now you’re sneezing and coughing, your hands and eyes are red and itchy, and you have a headache. What’s wrong?

You’ve spent hours cleaning your house. Now you’re sneezing and coughing, your hands and eyes are red and itchy, and you have a headache. What’s wrong?

Your cleaning products may be doing more than cleaning. They may be making you sick.

Read the Label

Under Canadian law, chemical ingredients at one percent or more concentration that are deemed dangerous–explosive, corrosive, flammable, or poisonous–must be listed on the label, with an equivalent symbol and first-aid instructions. Reading the label of many common household products could give you nightmares.

While the government bans products that pose unacceptably high health hazards, the onus is on consumers to use products properly.

Health Hazards

Many ingredients still found in traditional petroleum-based cleaning products are known or suspected carcinogens, endocrine disrupters, or reproductive toxins. In other words, they may cause cancer, block natural hormone production, affect fetal development, or lead to sperm damage in men and infertility in women.

Scientists know high-dose exposures to these chemicals can cause sickness. Now researchers are becoming increasingly concerned that long-term, low-level exposure, through skin absorption, inhalation, or ingestion, may be equally dangerous. Aerosol sprays, in particular, create fine mists that are deeply inhaled or may affect the eyes.

Even after you’ve finished cleaning, the chemical residues still leak fumes that add to indoor air pollution. The air in your home may be hundreds of times more polluted than the air outdoors. If you have young children who like to put things in their mouths, they may be at additional risk from cleaning product residues.

Homemade Alternatives

You don’t have to give up cleaning your house. Healthy alternatives to toxic cleaning products are as near as your cupboard. Baking soda cleans, deodorizes, removes stains, softens fabrics, and clears drains. Borax boosts the cleaning power of laundry soaps and detergents and, like table salt, is a scouring and disinfecting agent. Cornstarch deodorizes carpets. Lemon juice cuts through grease and stains on mirrors, dishes, and pots, while white vinegar is a mild disinfectant that also prevents mould.

While some of these homemade products may require more elbow grease to work, they are a lot friendlier to your body and to the air you breathe.

Commercial Eco-Friendly Alternatives

If you don’t want to make your own cleaning products, check out your local health food store. Most stores carry a wide range of eco-friendly products that contain safer, natural ingredients that are biodegradable, free from perfumes and dyes, and come in recycled, recyclable packaging. Look for the “Eco-Logo” symbol: three doves intertwined into a maple leaf with the words “Environmental Choice.”

But do these products work? CBC’s television program Marketplace compared three top-selling, eco-friendly dishwashing products to a popular cleaner made with chemicals. The result? The environmentally friendly cleaners did a better, faster job, without leaving a lingering odour. And they were just as effective in killing germs such as E. coli.

Don’t let a clean home make you sick. If you’re sensitive to traditional cleaning products or concerned about potential long-term health risks, do some research and speak to the staff in your health food store about alternatives. Then you can make informed, healthy choices.



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