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By Rachel Geyer
Most household all-purpose cleaners aim to clean dirt, stains and sometimes disinfect surfaces. A wide variety of chemicals used in these can cause harm to yourself, your pets and the environment.
Greenwashing is very common in advertising for cleaning products. Claims that a product is “environmentally friendly”, “eco-safe” or “green” don’t hold legal weight and can’t guarantee the product is sustainable.
Products with the EPA’s Safer Choice certification have all ingredients reviewed to meet the EPA’s human and environmental health standards, meet criteria for more sustainable packaging, and pass category-specific performance standards.
Products with the Fair for Life certification meet standards to respect human rights, fair working conditions, ecosystems and biodiversity, sustainable agriculture and local impact.
Some ingredients in all-purpose cleaners fall under HAPs, VOCs and POPs. HAPs stands for hazardous air pollutants. The EPA has identified 188 pollutants that can result in health or environmental effects. Some HAPs are also classified as VOCs. VOCs stands for volatile organic compounds. These chemicals are gasses emitted from certain solids and liquids, some of which can be cleaning products. The EPA can regulate certain VOCs that impact outdoor air quality, but they can’t regulate many VOCs in household products due to their lack of authority over indoor air quality. This is especially unfortunate since concentrations of VOCs can be up to ten times higher indoors. POPs stands for persistent organic pollutants. These pollutants take a long time to break down, prolonging their adverse effects.
Aerosols refer to tiny particles in the air, which can be natural or man-made. Spray cans, sometimes used with cleaning products, use aerosols to propel the contents of the can out. In these cases, the particles in the air can be harmful to human health.
These pollutants can alter the pH of aquatic ecosystems. The optimal pH range for most organisms is 6.5 to 8.5. The EPA recommends using cleaning products with a pH of no less than 4 and no greater than 9.5.
10 Common Ingredients to Avoid
These ingredients exist in cleaners at varying concentrations. While the product concentrations are often low enough to avoid severe human health effects, the chemicals eventually end up in waterways at high enough concentrations to affect aquatic life.
- Sodium lauryl sulfate can cause skin, eye and respiratory irritation and is highly toxic to aquatic life but does not persist.
- Sodium hydroxide can cause burns and eye damage and is highly toxic to aquatic life but does not persist.
- Sodium dichloroisocyanurate dihydrate can cause burns and eye damage and is highly toxic to aquatic life but does not persist.
- Coal tar dyes, used to color products, are carcinogens, toxic to aquatic life and persistent.
- Ethanolamines, or MEAs, DEAs and TEAs, can cause burns, eye damage and respiratory irritation, are toxic to aquatic life and are persistent.
- Diethyl phthalate, used to fragrance products, is toxic to aquatic life and persistent.
- Nonyphenol ethoxylates, or NPEs, can cause skin and eye irritation, are highly toxic to aquatic life and are persistent.
- Quaternary ammonium compounds, or QACs, can be toxic to aquatic and soil life, can contribute to antibiotic resistance and are persistent.
- Ammonia occurs naturally and is an essential part of the nitrogen cycle but at unnatural concentrations due to human activity, it can be harmful and deadly to aquatic life by leading to eutrophication and reducing dissolved oxygen. It is not persistent.
- Triclosan can disrupt the endocrine system and is toxic to aquatic life, particularly algal species, but is not persistent. It’s in the top seven most frequently detected compounds in U.S. streams.
Most all-purpose cleaners are sold in plastic, usually HDPE since it has a low risk of leaching. Only 5% of plastic in the U.S. is recycled. The rest breaks down into microplastics. HDPE can take up to 500 years to break down.
More on Our Sustainable Alternatives
If you look at the ingredients in Dr. Bronner’s Pure-Castile Bar Soap, palm oil, notorious for deforestation and human exploitation in its production, and sodium hydroxide are listed. Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps is Fair for Life certified and uses fair-trade palm oil. They use a saponification process to make their soaps, resulting in no residual sodium hydroxide.
Dr. Bronner’s Pure-Castile Bar Soap can be diluted to an all-purpose cleaning spray using this cheat sheet.
Hypochlorous acid cleans and disinfects surfaces. Its disinfecting capabilities are strong enough to use against COVID-19 in hospitals, yet safe for mouthwash. It’s made by electrifying a mixture of table salt and water, an inexpensive process that you can even purchase a device to do yourself in eight minutes. Note it has a shelf life of up to two weeks, so we recommend investing in your own device – you’ll save money in the long run.
Fillaree All-Purpose Cleaner - Clean Dream Spray, Circular Bodies Home Cleaning Powder and DIY recipes use vinegar and baking soda as cleaning agents. You may wonder if these household items are effective enough to replace more complicated cleaners, but their acidic and basic properties allow them to dissolve sediment. Vinegar is even effective against some pathogens, including E. coli.
- https://files.dep.state.pa.us/water/wastewater management/EDMRPortalFiles/Chemical_Additives/MSDS/617.pdf
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