What are the dangers?
If you’re like most people, you’ve probably got a cabinet that contains all sorts of cleaning products. These are useful at removing dust, mold, mildew and other gross stuff. However, many of these products can be harmful to humans and animals. Which ones do you need to be careful with? With trying to prevent the spread of COVID-19, are there any special things that you need to know when it comes to cleaning?
Cleaning is essential to protecting your health, which is important whether you’re at home, school or work, this is especially true give the circumstances with COVID-19. However, many people don’t realize just how dangerous household cleaning products are. They often include harmful chemicals and can be flammable or corrosive. Some people think that products that are labeled green or natural are safer, but this isn’t necessarily case. Research has shown that many of these chemicals are dangerous and they’re found throughout most homes. Scientists do point out that most household cleaning products and pesticides are reasonably safe if they’re used as directed because the level of toxicity is dependent on the amount used and the length of time exposed.
In order to provide their cleaning action, most products contain some form of an acid or base, which by themselves has relatively low reactivity. This is what allows them to be used “safely.” It’s essential to never mix the two! If you do, it can create hazardous substances or gases. Some common cleaning products that contain acids are hard water/mineral deposit removers, toilet bowl cleaners, rust removers, tub/tile cleaners, mold removers and vinegar. Common products that have bases are bleach & bleach-containing products, oven cleaners, glass cleaners, all-purpose cleaners, drain cleaners, laundry detergents and baking soda. In addition to not mixing products of any kind, you shouldn’t even store incompatible chemicals in the same location. Also, never store any chemicals in hazardous conditions, like near heat sources or open flames. Some products release dangerous chemicals, called volatile organic compounds (VOCs). VOCs play a part in aggravating chronic respiratory problems, allergic reactions and headaches. Products containing VOCs can include, but aren’t limited to aerosol spray products, air fresheners, chlorine bleach, detergent/dishwashing liquid, dry cleaning chemicals, rug/upholstery cleaners, furniture/floor polish and oven cleaners.
Besides VOCs, the chemicals that are found in many cleaning products have negative health side effects. For instance, ammonia can cause skin, lung and throat irritation. In addition, it can cause blindness and be fatal if it’s swallowed. Butyl Cellosolve results in irritation and tissue damage from inhalation. Formaldehyde is a known carcinogen (cancer-causing agent) and in high levels will give you a headache and irritate your eyes, nose and throat. Hydrochloric Acid when concentrated fumes are inhaled cause respiratory problems and is fatal if swallowed. Naphtha depresses the central nervous system. Perchloroethylene damages the liver, kidney and nervous system. Petroleum Distillates are highly flammable and harms lung tissue and nerve cells. Phenols are suspected carcinogens and are extremely dangerous. Propylene Glycol when ingestion leads to injury of the kidneys, lungs, heart and nervous system. Sodium Hydroxide (lye) is highly caustic, which means that contact with it can cause severe wounds to eyes, skin, mouth and throat. It also can cause liver and kidney impairments. Sodium Hypochlorite (chlorine bleach) can result in severe damage to eyes, skin, mouth and throat. Similar to lye, it also causes liver and kidney issues. Sodium Lauryl Sulfate irritates the skin. Sulfuric Acid burns the skin and exposure to concentrated fumes can be carcinogenic Trichloroethane results in harm to the liver and kidneys. Some people are allergic to compounds found in cleaning products. Often, these people don’t know that they’re allergic. Allergies can develop after just two exposures. The first is when the sensitization reaction occurs and is where your body recognizes a new chemical exposure. The second triggers your body’s immune system and causes the allergic reaction. This can happen with being exposed to even very small amounts of the product.
Another concerning factor about many products is that they smell nice. This is worrisome because fragrances typically mean that the products incorporate chemicals called phthalates, which are a class of synthetic chemicals found almost everywhere nowadays. Phthalates are used to make plastics flexible and soft. They’re in everything, such as teething rings, toothbrushes, vinyl flooring, shower curtains, plastic wrap and food containers. Both the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) have labeled of phthalates as “probable carcinogens.” In addition, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) calls them “possibly harmful.” There isn’t enough research yet to provide a definite determination. The European Union (EU) has prohibited some of them outright. The scary thing is that the Natural Resources Defense Council analyzed fourteen of the leading air fresheners on the market in 2007. They found phthalates in all but two and none identified were on the ingredient lists.
The reason companies don’t list these dangerous ingredients on their product labels is because they’re not required to by US law. They’re only required to list “chemicals of known concern” on their labels. The key word in this phrase is “known.” Under the terms of the Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976, the EPA can’t require chemical companies to prove the safety of their products unless the agency itself can demonstrate that the product poses a health risk. The EPA does not have the resources to examine every product. Another concern that the Environmental Working Group, an agency watchdog, reported in 2003 is that the EPA approves most applications for companies seeking approval of their products in three weeks. There is no way that any sort of testing is able to be accomplished during that time frame and more than half of the companies don’t supply information on toxicity when submitting their proposals. The EPA is relying on voluntary testing from major manufacturers. According to their own data, of the nearly 3,000 top selling chemicals in the US only 7% have a full set of basic toxicity information. This is unacceptable because that means the toxicity of most of chemicals that Americans come into contact with every day isn’t known. For the information that is known, the EPA assigns toxicity levels based upon how much harm they’re likely to cause if swallowed, inhaled or absorbed them through skin. In order to make sure that even children understand when a product is dangerous, they use signal words in indicate the level of potential harm. Danger is the strongest signal word and means that you must be extremely careful using the product. If you aren’t, you could get very sick, have long-lasting injuries, go blind or even die. A product also gets qualified as dangerous if it could explode when heated. Warning is the level below danger, but it still means that you could get really sick or become seriously hurt. It’s used to identify products that can easily catch on fire. Caution is below warning and indicates that the product can hurt you by bothering your skin, making you sick if you breathe in the fumes or really hurt your eyes. The EPA does provide a list of products that meet their Safer Choice requirements for cleaning and other needs. Let’s take a closer look at some of the damaging products.
Aerosols often include formaldehyde, phenols, toluene and phthalates, which are carcinogenic. They cause skin, eye and throat irritation. Also, they can injure your lungs. Many products come in an aerosolized form.
Air fresheners contain formaldehyde, naphthalene, terpenes, petroleum distillates, p-dichlorobenzene and aerosol propellants. These ingredients are usually highly flammable, so don’t spray them around an open flame. They are thought to cause cancer and brain damage. Since many of these are aerosols, they are strong irritants to the eyes, skin and throat. Additionally, solid fresheners can result in death if they’re eaten by people or pets. Baking soda, is not toxic and can be used as an alternative to air fresheners.
All-purpose cleaners usually contain several different chemicals, such as detergents, grease-cutting agents, solvents and/or disinfectants, all together. The specific chemicals include ammonia, ethylene glycol, monobutyl acetate, morpholine, butyl cellosolve, sodium hypochlorite and/or trisodium phosphate. If swallowed, they’re highly poisonous to both humans and animals. They can cause or aggravate asthma symptoms, reproductive problems, liver/kidney damage and nerve toxicity.
Antibacterial cleaners usually have water, a fragrance, a surfactant (to break up dirt) and a pesticide in them. The pesticides commonly used are quaternary ammonium (QUAT) or phenolic chemicals. QUATs are potent disinfectants, in fact, it’s certified by the EPA as pesticides harmful to people and animals in large doses. QUAT sanitizers are commonly sold as concentrated solutions and must be diluted with water prior to use. In this form, they’re highly toxic. Antibacterial cleaning products many contain triclosan, a chemical that can increase the resistance of some bacteria to antibiotics. Antibacterial soaps include benzalkonium chloride, a form of QUAT that can generates respiratory problems and skin irritation.
Antifreeze frequently has the main ingredient of ethylene glycol, which is extremely poisonous. Inhaling the fumes can result in dizziness. If swallowed, it causes severe damage to the heart, kidneys and brain that results in death. Pets are attracted to antifreeze due to its sweet smell. If they lick or drink it, they will die. It can be absorbed through the skin, so if you need to clean up an antifreeze spill, make sure you wear latex or rubber gloves. A safer alternative to ethylene glycol is propylene glycol. So, before purchasing antifreeze, look at the label to make sure that it contains this.
Batteries used today are sealed so you can’t be exposed to the contents, which includes sulfuric acid and lead. Sulfuric acid fumes are strongly irritating. If it’s touched, it can produce burning and charring of the skin. If it gets in your eyes, it will trigger permanent blindness. Lead is poisonous in any forms and accumulates in your body. It’s important to note that when activated, the electrolyte solution in a battery produces explosive gases that can be easily ignited. All batteries that contain sulfuric acid must be labeled. The key is to not break the seal. If it’s accidentally broken, keep children and pets away from the area until the battery’s acid is cleaned up. Be sure to wash your hands after any contact with batteries.
Bleach is one of the most common cleaning products and is the cause of more poisoning exposures than any household chemical. Household bleach contains the chemical sodium hypochlorite and comes in different concentrations ranging from 0.7 – 5.25%. The number represents the amount of the chemical in the liquid with the rest of the liquid being mostly water. The liquid can irritate the skin, eyes, nose and throat. If ingested, it can cause injury to your esophagus and stomach resulting in prolonged nausea and vomiting. Its vapor or mist can cause damage to the respiratory tract and aggravate asthma, emphysema, chronic bronchitis and other respiratory conditions. One major thing that everyone should be aware of is to NEVER mix bleach or any bleach-containing product with any other cleaner! When bleach and vinegar are mixed, it creates chlorine gas, which, even at low levels, can result in coughing, breathing problems, lung damage, skin burns, eye damage or death. If bleach and ammonia are mixed, they produce a toxic gas, chloramine. The symptoms that it causes are similar to those of mixing bleach and vinegar. Mixing bleach with rubbing alcohol will yield chloroform gas, which brings about dizziness and unconsciousness, but can lead to damage of the nervous/respiratory systems, eyes, skin, kidneys and other organs. Most aerosolized disinfectant sprays have alcohol, so be careful using these around bleach. The only thing that bleach should be mixed with is water. If you want to make your own effective, safe bleach disinfectant, mix one quart of water to four teaspoons of bleach.
Degreasers typically include butyl cellosolve, so they will instigate kidney/liver damage or depress the nervous system if you’re exposed. Many industrial degreasers are often diluted with kerosene, which can precipitate impairment of the lungs and dissolves essential fatty tissue around cells.
Dishwashing detergents, whether they’re automatic and handwashing types, have the ingredient phosphate, which is banned in laundry detergents. Automatic types can generate skin irritations/burns and may be poisonous if swallowed. Handwsahing types are milder. So, if they’re swallowed, they may cause irritation to the mouth/throat and nausea, but aren’t usually fatal. Many common dishwashing products we use in the US are banned by the EU due their impacts on humans and the environment.
Disinfectants often contain several toxic chemicals, including formaldehyde, cresols, ammonia, phenols and chlorine bleach. All of these can irritate the skin and are hazardous to internal organs and the central nervous system. In addition, many disinfectants include triclosan.
Drain cleaners use strong bases (lye) or strong acids (sulfuric acid) as the main ingredients. These chemicals create dangerous fumes and trigger burns and blindness if they come in contact with your skin or eyes. If swallowed, they’re fatal. If two drain cleaners are mixed, especially if one is an acid and the other base, they can produce toxic gas, intense heat or even explosions. This is why you should NEVER mix drain cleaners with other cleaning products, including other drain cleaners.
Furniture/floor polish usually are comprised of petroleum distillates, cresols and oil of cedar. They often have ammonia, naphtha, nitrobenzene and phenol in them as well. If the products have a fragrance, then they also include phthalates. These chemicals can irritate your skin, eyes, throat and lungs. If swallowed, you’ll experience nausea and vomiting. Keep in mind that vapors can contaminate indoor air for days.
Glass cleaner has ammonia, isopropanol and butyl cellosolve. It can irritate the skin, eyes, nose, throat and the respiratory system. If swallowed, they result in drowsiness, unconsciousness or death.
Household foggers, or bug bombs, contain many pesticide chemicals, such as pyrethrins, permethrin and methoprene. Exposure to these could set off burning in your eyes, burning of your skin or result in breathing problems. Also, the contents are flammable. Proper use of foggers requires that all windows and doors to the specific room or entire house be closed. All people and pets need to get out of the house. This is true even if the specific room being treated is closed off because the gas emitted from the foggers will escape under doors and through air vents. Nothing, such as toys, food, plates, cups, silverware and cookware, should not be left out anywhere in the house. After the fogger is finished, wipe down all table and counter tops before using them. Air out the house by turning on your air conditioner or opening the windows. Also, use fans to help push air out the house.
Hydrogen Peroxide isn’t associated with being harmful, but when mixed with other chemicals, it’s quite dangerous. If you mix hydrogen peroxide and vinegar, which are two seemingly safe cleaning agents, they create peracetic acid. This is potentially toxic and can irritate the skin, eyes and respiratory system. Don’t mix hydrogen peroxide with ammonia, acetone, any base (ex. bleach) or any flammable liquids (including many petroleum-based solvents). Also, don’t use hydrogen peroxide on metal surfaces, especially copper, iron or chromium.
Insecticides have the pesticides permethrin, diazinon, propoxur and chlorpyrifos. These chemicals can trigger headache, dizziness, twitching and nausea. If you use bait traps for ants, cockroaches, crickets and other insects, be careful since they include the chemicals abarmectin, propoxur, trichlorfon, sulfluramid, chlorpyrifos and boric acid. Most insect baits are enclosed in containers, so it’s unlikely that you’ll come in contact with the pesticides. However, if you do, wash your hands with plenty of soap and water. Baits for rodent control use the pesticide warfarin. This chemical causes internal bleeding if ingested in large amounts.
Insect repellents commonly contain pyrethrins and DEET. These can cause a burning sensation to eyes, skin and throat. In addition, they also may instigate anxiety, behavioral changes, mental confusion and a loss of coordination. These repellents should only be applied to your clothes. Make sure to keep them away from your eyes, mouth and any cuts on your skin. Don’t spray them on your face. When you come indoors, get rid of the chemicals by taking a shower/bath and wash your clothes.
Laundry detergents contain enzymes that are noted by the names “cationic,” “anionic” or “non-ionic” on the label. These help to loosen stains and ground-in dirt. Cationic detergents are the most toxic when taken internally. If you swallow them, you can end up with nausea, vomiting, shock, convulsions and coma. Non-ionic detergents are less toxic but irritate skin and eyes. They can also make you more sensitive to other chemicals. People can even develop asthma if they’re exposed to large quantities of detergent.
Mold and mildew removers often have chlorine and alkyl ammonium chlorides in them. Some may also contain pesticides. These can cause breathing problems. If swallowed, they can burn your throat.
Mothballs are pesticides that contain the chemicals naphthalene and p-dichlorobenzene. These can result in headaches and dizziness. They can also irritate the skin, eyes and throat. If you have extended exposure, you can develop cataracts and liver damage.
Motor oil is often contaminated with magnesium, copper, zinc and other heavy metals deposited from your vehicle’s engine. All of these are harmful to your health in various ways.
Oven cleaner has the basic ingredient lye (either sodium hydroxide or potassium hydroxide). Aerosol versions are easily inhaled, which can result in severe respiratory issues. If swallowed, they’re usually fatal. There are non-toxic oven cleaners without lye are available.
Paint comes in two forms—latex-based and oil-based. Most latex-based paints are waters-soluble and aren’t highly toxic. However, some produce formaldehyde when drying. Oil-based paint has organic solvents that can be irritating to eyes and skin. Inhaling paint fumes can result in headaches, nausea, dizziness and fatigue. These symptoms subside once you leave the freshly painted environment. In order to maintain adequate ventilation, keep windows/doors fully open and place a box fan in a window to direct air and fumes out. The fan should be on while painting and for 48 hours after.
Pet flea and tick treatments contain pesticides that consist of the chemicals imidacloprid, fipronil, pyrethrins, permethrin and methoprene. These chemicals can trigger headaches, dizziness, twitching and nausea. After using these products on your dog or cat, be sure not to pet them for at least 24 hours. If you forget, wash your hands and skin immediately with a lot of soap and water.
Rug, carpet and upholstery cleaners have perchloroethylene, naphthalene and ammonium hydroxide in them. The fumes given off by these products can cause cancer and liver damage in the long term and have been known to cause dizziness, sleepiness, nausea, loss of appetite and disorientation in the short term. These chemicals are particularly dangerous to children who play on carpets after they’re cleaned.
Scouring cleansers have butyl cellosolve which not only irritate mucous membranes, but cause liver and kidney damage. Many brands also use chlorine bleach and silica (an abrasive that can be dangerous if inhaled).
Swimming pool chemicals are incredibly dangerous since they come in non-diluted forms. Chloride tablets contain calcium and sodium hypochlorite. Algicides commonly include alkyl ammonium chlorides. If you come into contact with these chemicals before they are diluted, they can trigger breathing problems and a burning sensation to eyes and skin. If they’re swallowed, burns to the throat result and they could be fatal.
Toilet bowl cleaners are comprised of the chemicals sodium hypochlorite or hydrochloric acid (bleach). This means that they can be very irritating to your eyes/skin and will burn your throat. Since they typically contain bleach, NEVER mix them with any other cleaning products.
Tub, tile and sink cleaner also contain chlorine and can contribute to the formation of organochlorines, a dangerous class of compounds that can bring about reproductive, endocrine and immune system disorders. Many also contain phosphoric acid which irritates the eyes, lungs and skin.
Weed killers use the common pesticides diquat, 2,4-D, and glyphosate. These enflame the eyes and skin. They’re also very harmful if swallowed or inhaled.
Windshield washer fluid has the chemicals methanol, ethylene glycol and isopropanol. They will irritate the lining of your nose, mouth and throat and can cause damage to the nervous system, liver, kidneys, heart and brain. Ingesting this can result in drowsiness, unconsciousness and death.
Since it isn’t required of cleaning product manufacturers to list all of the ingredients that are in their goods, many consumers don’t know what active ingredients are in their household cleaners. This is why it’s crucial to follow the directions on the label on how to properly use the product before you handle it. This includes leaving the product on the surface long enough to effectively destroy whatever it’s supposed to, which can range from 30 seconds to several minutes. The best rule to follow is to let that surface air dry. When selecting what products to use, choose those that don’t have, or at least have reduced amounts, of VOCs, fragrances, irritants and flammable ingredients. Do your best to avoid using air fresheners altogether. It’s essential to label ALL containers in which cleaning products are mixed and stored (ex. buckets and spray bottles). Keep these items and the products themselves out of reach of children. Don’t reuse any packages/containers originally filled with commercial cleaning products and don’t place cleaning products in containers that aren’t they’re original. Always wear appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE), such as gloves, goggles, respirators, aprons and rubber boots, for the product that you’re using. When finished cleaning, always wash your hands. Make sure that area in which you’re using any cleaning product is well ventilated. Be conscious of the presence of other cleaning products on surfaces or containers before put any cleansers or disinfectants on them. If you’re looking for a safer alternative, warm water and soap is the best bet. If you need to scrub something, use baking soda. If you need to clean your mirrors or windows, try using vinegar mixed with water. If you’re planning on continuing to use cleaning products, the Household Products Database at the National Institutes of Health provides a list of cleaners and their ingredients. Another option is to contact the manufacturer and ask for the MSDS manufacturing specification sheets.
The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) published a study on April 20th of this year that showed a significant increase in calls to poison hotlines for cases involving cleaners and disinfectants. There are 55 poison centers in the US that offer free, confidential, 24-hour medical advice on what to do if you are exposed to poison, chemicals, drugs and medications. From January through March, these centers received 45,550 exposure calls related to cleaners (28,158) and disinfectants (17,392). This represents an overall increase of 20.4% when compared with the same period in 2019 and 16.4% more than 2018. Even though people of all ages reported increased cleaning agent exposure, the highest proportion of exposures, nearly 50%, was seen in children under 6. The authors of the study did say that the actual number of exposures was likely higher because the data only came from reported calls and some people who were exposed probably did not report their cases. One thing not noted in the study is the reason for an exposure since this is not something that is asked by the hotlines. However, the authors indicate that there is most likely a connection between the surge in cases and the increase in media coverage of COVID-19, stay-at-home orders put in place and instructions from public health officials. After reviewing the nature of the calls, the researchers stated the two main concerns were the access that children have to dangerous products and the mixing of substances that accidentally creates dangerous chemical compounds and gasses. It’s vital to keep cleaning products in an area that children won’t find them. Often, cleaning products are brightly colored, and in easy-to-dispense containers, which leads kids to think they’re a beverage or food. Poison control experts found that children were often ingesting hand sanitizer. They want parents and caregivers to know that that a small amount of hand sanitizer won’t seriously hurt kids, but if it’s ingested in large amounts, it could cause intoxication, slowed heart rate/breathing and, in extreme scenarios, coma and death. Besides issues with accidental poisonings of children, the biggest culprit for the increase in calls to poison centers is bleach with the inhalation of harmful fumes being the most common reason for a call. Part of the issue is that people are utilizing cleaners and hand sanitizers at record rates, so this has left some scrambling to find alternate methods to keep things clean, so in an effort to make a ‘stronger’ cleaner many are mixing chemicals together that shouldn’t be. For instance, mixing bleach and ammonia was the second of the top three calls. Another concern with consumer cleaning supplies in short supply is that many people are turning industrial cleaning products. These are often sold in concentrated forms and handling them is extremely hazardous. They shouldn’t be used in your home; however, if you do use them, they must be diluted according to directions and you should wear specialized PPE. Experts also warn that many industrial, and consumer, cleaning products are only approved for non-food surfaces because they can cause negative health effects if ingested.
There are many dangers associated with cleaning products and it’s up to each one of us to decide which ones we’re comfortable with using. The best way to do this is by being informed and following all safety instructions. All effort must be made to protect not only yourself, but children and pets from the hazards. This is particularly true right now when people are cleaning more than ever before. By doing this, you’ll not only have a clean environment in which to live, but it’ll be a safer one too!