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Clean Your Home, Don't Poison It

cleaning chemicalsLouis Pasteur is regarded as a hero in medical circles for his “germ theory” of disease. I won't dispute that the discovery of micro-organisms wasn't important—it was.  It helped us to develop better sanitation methods and prevent the spread of disease. However, we've carried our obsession with germs too far.

Spurred on by TV ads promising a “germ free” environment, Americans use disinfectant sprays, antimicrobial soaps, disinfecting toilet bowel cleaners, antiseptic wipes and other products designed to keep our homes “germ free.” However, the whole notion of “germ free” is a joke. Even after you wash that counter top with a disinfectant cleaner there are still millions of bacteria on that surface. It's just not possible to keep a home totally sterile.

Furthermore, it's totally unnecessary. A 2005 FDA report concluded that there is no added benefit to antibacterial soaps over regular soap and water. Even the AMA took an official stance against adding antimicrobials to consumer products in 2000.

There are several reasons for this. First, the chemicals being used in these antiseptic soaps are toxic. Disinfectants create indoor air pollution which can cause eye, nose, and throat irritation, headaches, asthma, loss of coordination, nausea, cancer, and liver, kidney, and central nervous system damage. Also, in 1989, the EPA determined the toxic chemicals found in common household cleaners, often dispersed in fumes, are three times more likely to cause cancer than other air pollutants.

Second, they contribute to the development of disease resistant microbes. They may actually make a person more, not less, prone to skin infections. That's partly because of their toxicity and partly because there are friendly microbes on our skin (just like there are in our colon) which help protect us. These antiseptics kill the good along with the bad.

The other reason over disinfecting is bad is because our bodies need to be exposed to a certain amount of germs to develop immunity. Even though our bodies are exposed to germs everyday, we don't get sick from them because the body was designed to be able to deal with a certain level of these infectious organisms. In fact, it's necessary to have some exposure to germs in order to develop the immune system. If you were raised in a completely sterile environment, the body would never be presented with any microbial challenges and wouldn't build up resistance to microbes. The microbes which are naturally present in our environment provide a kind of natural vaccination process.

Household Cleaners and Environmental Pollution

polluting the water.jpgAnother problem with these chemicals is that they contribute to environmental pollution. The Clean Water Fund estimates that the average American uses 40 pounds of unsafe household cleaners each year. If we multiply that by 295 million Americans, that's 12 billion pounds of toxic chemicals released into the environment from household cleaning products alone.

Here are just a few of the possible hazards in these cleaners.

Antimicrobial soaps may contain toxic compounds such as the pesticide triclocarban (TCC). It is known to cause cancer and reproductive problems in mammals and is a persistent organic pollutant that doesn't break down readily in the environment. 60% of US streams contain this chemical.

Petroleum-based furniture polish and sprays can contain ingredients that are neurotoxic. They can act as central nervous system depressants, cause headaches or interfere with mental concentration.

Oven cleaners are very dangerous, corrosive chemicals. They can cause severe burns and respiratory distress. They typically contain ingredients that are neurotoxic and central nervous system depressants, which can cause headaches, depression, and a loss of concentration.

Commercial toilet bowel cleaners may contain sodium acid oxalate, chlorinated phenols and o-or-p-Dichlorobenzene, all of which are highly toxic. Sodium acid sulfate is highly corrosive. O-or-p-Dichlorobenzene is a liver and kidney poison, as well as being a powerful central nervous system depressant which can cause confusion, headaches, lack of concentration, and symptoms of mental illness.

chlorine.jpgThe chlorine in chlorine bleach is corrosive and can damage skin, eyes and mucus membranes. Chlorine was listed as a hazardous air pollutant in the 1990 Clean Air Act.

This is just the tip of the iceberg where these chemicals are concerned. If you just do a little bit of research, you'll discover many other hazardous chemicals that find their way into products people use to clean their homes. But, all you really have to do is look at the labels.

When I was researching this article I was surprised to find that there is a hierarchy to the warning labels on these household products. So, from most toxic, to least toxic, here's what the labels mean.

  • Poison/Danger: This means the product is highly toxic. Ingesting small amounts, in some cases just a few drops, can be fatal. This is the most important category to avoid. Why would you want to use chemicals that are this toxic in your home? It's like creating your own indoor pollution problem.
  • Caution: These products are definitely less toxic, it would be necessary to ingest between two tablespoons and two cups to be fatal. If you've got to use a commercial product, at least make sure this is as toxic as it gets.
  • Corrosive: Products with this word are those that can damage skin and mucous membranes upon direct contact.

Avoid Chemical Cleaners

cleaning home.jpgI usually don't buy stuff with chemicals in it, because a long time ago I got suspicious of today's “wonderful, exciting, make-life-better” chemicals. My general attitude towards this stuff is that it hasn't been around long enough to really know for sure if it's safe or not. Still, I've been more lax with cleaning supplies than I have with anything else. While I don't use pesticides, commercial personal care products (toothpaste, deodorant, etc.) and so forth, I have been known to purchase some harsh cleaning supplies from time to time.

I think that's because when I was younger I did cleaning for a living, including janitorial work, carpet cleaning, painting and fixing up rental properties after they'd been vacated. What we're around regularly we tend to grow accustomed to, so I think I'd never thought much about the stuff I was using for cleaning. Now, after researching this topic, I've decided to be more careful about the cleaning products I use.

I do know that some cleaning products I've used have really irritated my lungs. In particular, one product I purchased to remove some thick soap scum from a shower was so bad that I had to leave the room because of the fumes. That can't be good for one's health or the health of the environment. Also, I know that when I travel and sleep in certain hotels that I'm always thirsty and have problems and I believe it's from the chemicals they're using to clean the rooms. So, I can see how constant exposure to this stuff could really adversely affect your health over time.

I would like to caution you, however. If you're not careful, it's easy to become a little paranoid and worry about exposure to chemicals. So, one caution I would like to make is to not be governed by fear. The body was designed to be able to handle some amount of toxic exposure, so don't worry if you're occasionally exposed to this stuff. It's repeated exposure to these chemicals, coupled with stress and malnutrition, that ultimately causes people's health to break down.

What I'm trying to do is educate you so you can make better choices. I choose to look for safe, natural ways of doing things because I desire to create a healthy, safe home, not because I'm afraid of getting sick. There's a big difference in those two attitudes, even though they achieve the same end. One of my personal choices is, “I refuse to live my life in fear.”

So, I'd like to encourage you to keep toxic chemicals out of your home and learn to use natural cleaning products. Not because of fear of the commercial chemicals, but out of a positive desire to have a clean (and poison-free) home. It's also a good choice to make for our planet.

Fortunately, there are plenty of non-toxic options for household cleaning that are also cheaper than commercial cleaners. While it's often an increased expense to use natural products in other areas, in this case, natural products can actually save you money, too. Here are some of the products I personally use.

This is a two part article. Click here to read Part Two: Non-Toxic Cleaning Products.