Is Spring Cleaning a Health Risk?

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It’s time for spring cleaning, but before you pull out the spray bottles and solvents, researchers at the Environmental Working Group (EWG) say you should double-check what you’re using to sanitize.

On Tuesday, the EWG, a non-profit public-health advocacy in Washington, D.C., released its “Cleaners Hall of Shame” — a list of popular cleaning supplies that may potentially pose a hazard to your health.

According to the EWG’s research team, which consists of toxicologists, chemists, public health officials and lawyers, many common household cleaners that claim to be safe or non-toxic could be harmful, especially to kids who might ingest them or breathe in their fumes. Many products contain ingredients that have been banned in other countries for links to ailments including blindness and cancer, according to the EWG, and others have been “greenwashed,” meaning that contrary to their marketing claims, they are not actually environmentally friendly. Other products simply do not offer enough information about their ingredients to make an informed judgment about their safety, the EWG said.

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“Cleaning your house may come at a high price,” said Jane Houlihan, EWG’s senior vice president for research and co-author of the Cleaners Hall of Shame report, in a statement. “Almost any ingredient is legal and almost none of them are labeled, leaving families at risk. Our Hall of Shame products don’t belong in the home.”

The Hall of Shame is a sampling of the products that will be included in the EWG’s larger, more comprehensive Cleaners Database project, which is due to be completed in fall 2012. The final database will be similar to the EWG’s well-known Skin Deep safety ratings of more than 69,000 cosmetic products.

“We saw the next hole in information was cleaning products, so we decided to put our research expertise into this,” says Nneka Leiba, a senior analyst for EWG. “As we’ve been working on this database for the last few months, we realized Americans really need to be aware of some of the ingredients in these products. We feel we have to release some of this information early.”

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In their research, the team collected packaging for thousands of cleaning products and looked carefully at all the restrictions, ingredients, warnings and technical documents pertaining to each product’s make-up. They took this data and ran it against two large sources of information on toxins and carcinogens — the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) database and the Association of Occupational and Environmental Health’s List of Asthmagens. Using this method, the team was able to show which ingredients were linked to which hazards.

“After we looked at all the information for the products, it became so obvious how little was known about our cleaning products,” says Leiba.

The Federal Hazardous Substances Act requires [PDF] all household products to list any toxic ingredients on the container and to give consumers instruction on immediate first aid in case of an accident. The EWG claims that not all products adhere to the full-disclosure rule.

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Here are some of the EWG’s “worst offenders”:

  • Mop & Glo Multi-Surface Floor Cleaner: The product contains methoxydiglycol (DEGME), which is “suspected of damaging the unborn child” by the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe. Levels of DEGME in the floor cleaner are up to 15 times higher than permitted in the European Union.
  • Tarn-X: The tarnish remover contains up to 7 percent thiourea, which is categorized as a carcinogen by the state of California. The National Toxicology Program — an interagency federal group — says thiourea is “reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen.”
  • Simple Green Concentrated All-Purpose Cleaner: The cleaner claims to be “non-toxic” but contains 2-butoxyethanol, a solvent absorbed through the skin that causes eye irritation and damaged red blood cells.  The product is sold in a ready-to-use spray bottle despite instructions to dilute, even for heavy cleaning.
  • Target’s Up & Up and Walmart’s Great Value brands: Both products’ labels offer little or no ingredient information.

EWG posted additional Cleaners Hall of Shame offenders online. The full database, which is still a work in progress, will be the first comprehensive independent safety analysis of toxic chemicals in more than 2,000 household cleaning products and brands.

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The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) declined to comment specifically on the items listed in the EWG’s Cleaners Hall of Shame, but noted that none are included in the EPA’s Design for the Environment program for safer products (DfE). The the goal of the program is to help consumers, businesses and institutional buyers find cleaning and other products that work well, are cost-effective and are safer for the environment.

In response to the Hall of Shame list and the EWG’s suggestion that these products’ ingredients should be better regulated, the EPA said in an email:

The EPA encourages consumers to buy DfE-labeled products, which are available for a wide range of consumer cleaning and other applications. Our stringent human and environmental health criteria help ensure that DfE-labeled products are safer, perform well and contain the safest possible ingredients.

As for the American Cleaning Institute (formerly the Soap and Detergent Association), it took issue with the EWG’s Hall of Shame, calling it an “outrageous new publicity campaign designed to promote false fears about cleaning products that are used safely and effectively every day.” In a statement, the group said:

The Environmental Working Group’s new publicity attack on practically every cleaning product category is really an assault on common sense. The group distorts the science and research about product and ingredient safety. It ignores the fact that an enormous amount of resources are dedicated to assuring the safety of products, including many millions of dollars in research, development and testing before products ever hit the shelves.

And they seem to forget the three words on product labels that prevent potential real-life problems from occurring: Use as directed.

To reduce potential risks to consumers, the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) also recommends following product label instructions carefully, throwing away partially full containers of old or unneeded products properly and buying cleaning supplies limited quantities. They also encourage consumers to report safety incidents to the government and educate themselves about other incidents involving household products — both of which you can do at saferproducts.gov.

“Poisoning is one of the top causes of unintended injury among children each year. About 2 million calls are made each year to poison control,” says Scott Wolfson, CSPC’s director of communications. “We want to reduce children’s exposure to these chemicals as much as possible. Not only do we reduce their exposure through safety caps and packaging, but we encourage parents to be alert when using these products. Parents do not want to step away from cleaning and have their child exposed.”

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