The average household contains about 62 toxic chemicals, say environmental experts. We’re exposed to them routinely — from the phthalates in synthetic fragrances to the noxious fumes in oven cleaners. Ingredients in common household products have been linked to asthma, cancer, reproductive disorders, hormone disruption and neurotoxicity.
Manufacturers argue that in small amounts these toxic ingredients aren’t likely to be a problem, but when we’re exposed to them routinely, and in combinations that haven’t been studied, it’s impossible to accurately gauge the risks. While a few products cause immediate reactions from acute exposure (headaches from fumes, skin burns from accidental contact), different problems arise with repeated contact. Chronic exposure adds to the body’s “toxic burden” — the number of chemicals stored in its tissues at a given time.
No one can avoid exposure to toxic chemicals altogether, but it is possible to reduce it significantly. In the following pages, experts weigh in on the worst toxic offenders commonly found in household cleaning products, and offer ways to swap them for healthier, safer options.
Found in: Many fragranced household products, such as air fresheners, dish soap, even toilet paper. Because of proprietary laws, companies don’t have to disclose what’s in their scents, so you won’t find phthalates on a label. If you see the word “fragrance” on a label, there’s a good chance phthalates are present.
Health Risks: Phthalates are known endocrine disruptors. Men with higher phthalate compounds in their blood had correspondingly reduced sperm counts, according to a 2003 study conducted by researchers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Harvard School of Public Health. Although exposure to phthalates mainly occurs through inhalation, it can also happen through skin contact with scented soaps, which is a significant problem, warns Alicia Stanton, MD, coauthor of Hormone Harmony (Healthy Life Library, 2009). Unlike the digestive system, the skin has no safeguards against toxins. Absorbed chemicals go straight to organs.
Healthier Choice: When possible choose fragrance-free or all-natural organic products. Beth Greer, author of Super Natural Home, recommends bypassing aerosol or plug-in air fresheners and instead using essential oils or simply opening windows to freshen the air. Besides causing more serious effects like endocrine disruption, “Aerosol sprays and air fresheners can be migraine and asthma triggers,” she says. Also consider adding more plants to your home: They’re natural air detoxifiers.
2. Perchloroethylene or “PERC”
Found in: Dry-cleaning solutions, spot removers, and carpet and upholstery cleaners.
Health Risks: Perc is a neurotoxin, according to the chief scientist of environmental protection for the New York Attorney General’s office. And the EPA classifies perc as a “possible carcinogen” as well. People who live in residential buildings where dry cleaners are located have reported dizziness, loss of coordination and other symptoms. While the EPA has ordered a phase-out of perc machines in residential buildings by 2020, California is going even further and plans to eliminate all use of perc by 2023 because of its suspected health risks. The route of exposure is most often inhalation: that telltale smell on clothes when they return from the dry cleaner, or the fumes that linger after cleaning carpets.
Healthier Choice: Curtains, drapes and clothes that are labeled “dry clean only” can be taken instead to a “wet cleaner,” which uses water-based technology rather than chemical solvents. The EPA recently recognized liquid carbon dioxide (CO2) as an environmentally preferable alternative to more toxic dry-cleaning solvents. Ask your dry cleaner which method they use. For a safer spot remover, look for a nontoxic brand like Ecover at a natural market, or rub undiluted castile soap directly on stains before washing.