How green are green household cleaners?

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Open the cabinet below the kitchen sink in the average household, and you're likely to find a bucket of sprays, soaps and disinfectants to subdue any germ that dare enter the home. They meld together in a fragrant bouquet of pine, lemon zest and fresh cotton, an olfactory signal that our floors, sinks and toilets are sanitized.

But recent scientific evidence has uncovered a dirty side to many of these cleaners. Yes, even the liquid, solid and flaked potions we use to keep things spick-and-span at home have not escaped the harsh scrutiny of environmentally conscious researchers, advocates and consumers. With additional news from the Environmental Protection Agency that indoor air may be more polluted than outdoor air, eco- and people-friendly household cleansers have started filling up shelves in grocery stores [source: EPA]. As of April 2008, sales of "natural cleaning products" leapt 23 percent over the previous year [source: Conis].

Are these purportedly eco-friendly products just greenwashed in a zesty orange scent? Or do the proclamations of "natural," "green" and "safe to use" hold true?

­One of the trickiest aspects of evaluating the greenness of this newer strain of cleaners is the lack of federal oversight. Manufacturers have no legal obligation to list the ingredients in their entirety since doing so might reveal trade secrets [source: Thompson]. With more than 80,000 chemical compounds clear­ed for commercial purposes in the United States, the EPA only requires manufacturers to warn of toxicity. That means your all-natural X Brand cleanser may be slipping in some harmful chemical cousins under the radar.

Companies cannot legally mislead consumers about the contents of their products, but there isn't a regulatory agency that defines what meets green standards [source: Conis]. Instead, they can voluntary subm­it their products for review by the EPA's Design for Environment, Green Seal or other eco-labeling organizations for a stamp of approval.

Why worry about how close to nature our toilet bowl cleaners or laundry detergent comes when they aren't intended for consumption? We'll take a closer look at what's inside some cleaning compounds on the next page.

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Why bother with green cleaners?

Instead of potentially toxic chemicals, green cleaners often use plant derivatives from oranges and coconuts.
Instead of potentially toxic chemicals, green cleaners often use plant derivatives from oranges and coconuts.
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Going the extra eco-mile to spruce up your household cleaners may seem unnecessary. The standard ones have worked for years, so what harm could they possibly pose? Many of the toxic chemicals that scrub the dirt from our lives can also seep into our water supplies and get into our bodies. For instance, a 2004 study by the Environmental Working Group found traces of more than 200 industrial chemical compounds in the cord blood of newborns [source: Environmental Working Group].

When it comes to working with household cleaners, studies have found the greatest potential danger exists for professional house cleaners or janitors [source: UC Berkeley]. That said, tidying up a ventilated bathroom with a normal amount of cleanser won't send you to the hospital, but there are probably a few substances contained in them that you might not want around.

Research has found that the following group in particular can have negative effects on both the health of people and our environment. You won't find many of these in certified ecofriendly cleaning products:

  • Phthalates: chemical compounds often referred to as plasticizers that also help hold in fragrances. Canada recently banned them as a component in baby bottle plastics.
  • Volatile organic compounds (VOCs): chemical combos found in liquids and solids that are released as gases. Since you inhale VOCs, these are often linked with asthma and respiratory problems [source: EPA].
  • Nonylphenol ethoxylates (NPEs): chemicals that can pollute water supplies and potentially lead to liver and kidney damage in humans [source: Conis]. In 2005, the Sierra Club petitioned the EPA to ban the use of NPEs, which are already regulated in the European Union and Canada, in laundry detergents [source: Sierra Club].
  • Phosphates: acidic compounds that many states have banned from laundry detergents, but manufacturers can still add to dishwasher detergents [source: Conis]
  • Petrochemicals: These chemicals derived from oil refinement pose the greatest threat to babies and children since the particles can get into the lungs if ingested.
  • Chlorine bleach: Although it will get your whites whiter, the solution is also associated with respiratory problems, especially in children [source: Nickmilder et al].
  • Ammonia: This gas is a natural byproduct that is safe at normal levels. But in higher concentrations or in unventilated areas, ammonia can burn skin, eyes, throat and lungs, even causing death in extreme situations [source: Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry].

Instead of these more toxic compounds, green products integrate more plant derivatives into their solutions. You'll also find more natural scents, if any, such as citrus or lavender.

But how can you know if the bottle of "all natural" cleaner actually measures up to these higher standards? We'll navigate the green clean maze on the next page.

Navigating Green Cleaning Products

Read labels carefully to learn how green household products actually are.
Read labels carefully to learn how green household products actually are.
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The practice of green marketing, or using claims on packaging and advertisements about an item's environmental vigor, has become more widespread as a selling technique. But with that, more questions have arisen regarding what accurately falls into the green category. As a result, the EPA and organizations such as Green Seal want to establish better standards and transparency on self-proclaimed ecofriendly products to cut the number of greenwashers out there.

Ecolabels, or third-party seals of approval defined by the International Standards Office, are one of the best bets right now for deciding which household goods are truly green. The Global Ecolabelling Network defines ecolabels as "performance leadership designations," meaning the products are not simply better for the environment than competitors, but meet more rigorous criteria [source: Global Ecolabelling Network]. To determine a product's worthiness, these third parties not only evaluate the substances used in it, but also compare it to other market competitors.

The EPA and Green Seal also have ecolabels they will grant to products upon successful review. For instance, the new Clorox Green Works line features the EPA's Design for Environment seal of approval. EcoLogo is another mark you may find that indicates no known carcinogens or mutagens among the ingredients [source: Conis]. Product submission for ecolabeling is voluntary on the part of the manufacturers.

If you don't see a third-party stamp on the packaging, check out the list of ingredients. Many times, the closer you get to au naturalé, the more you'll see -- particularly familiar items you have seen before such as hydrogen peroxide [source: GreenGuide].

Buzzwords that pop up often on green product packaging include nontoxic, biodegradable and all natural. Descriptions like these can mislead if you don't pay close attention. The term "all natural" may deceive because products can be made from organic materials but contain potentially harmful chemicals. For instance, a terpene, or carbon compound, called d-limonene is derived from orange peels, but also reacts with ozone to create formaldehyde [source: Hubert].

More meaningful cues include "non-carcinogenic" and "non-mutagenic." Non-carcinogenic means that the chemicals found in the cleansers don't cause cancer in animals or so far in humans. Since some chemicals are also known to interrupt hormone production and function in the body, non-mutagenic products would not use any such compounds.

If you want to wash your hands of the entire green cleaning quandary, there are many do-it-yourself methods for disinfecting your home. Common items around the house, such as vinegar and baking soda, can fill in where your buckets of cleaning products leave off.

  • Lemons: can lighten stains and cut grease.
  • Baking soda: soaks up bad odors and removes some stains.
  • Vinegar: good for cleaning glass without streaks; also kills germs on countertops and coffee makers [source: Hubert]
  • Salt: salt solutions can remove stains and clean appliances around the kitchen. For a detailed list, check out Household Uses for Salt.

To learn more about green products for the home and elsewhere, visit the links on the next page.

Related Articles

More Great Links

Sources

  • Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. "ToxFAQs -- Ammonia." U.S. Department of Health and Human Serivces. Updated Sept. 11, 2007. (July 1, 2008)http://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/tfacts126.html
  • Cone, Marla. "State to launch effort to develop 'green' substitutes for chemicals." Los Angeles Times. Jan. 31, 2008. (July 1, 2008) http://articles.latimes.com/2008/jan/31/local/me-green31
  • Conis, Elena. "How safe are green products?" Los Angeles Times. April 28, 2008. (July 1, 2008) http://www.latimes.com/features/health/la-he-green28apr28,1,5738574.story
  • Environmental Working Group. "Body Burden -- The Pollution in Newborns." July 14, 2005. (July 1, 2008)http://archive.ewg.org/reports/bodyburden2/execsumm.php
  • Fischler, Marcelle S. "A Safe House?" The New York Times. Feb. 15, 2007. (July 1, 2008)http://www.nytimes.com/2007/02/15/garden/15clean.html?_r=1&8dpc&oref=slogin
  • Global Ecolabelling Network. "Introduction to Ecolabelling." July 2004. (July 1, 2008)http://www.gen.gr.jp/pdf/pub_pdf01.pdf
  • Goldman, Abigail. "'Green' Labels Come with a Shade of Doubt." Los Angeles Times. Sept. 5, 2007. (July 1, 2008)http://articles.latimes.com/2007/sep/05/business/fi-greenseal5
  • Hubert, Cynthia. "Shades of Green: The big scrub-off: It's not hard to buy so-called eco-friendly cleaners, but do they work -- and really meet the standard?" Knight Ridder Tribune Business News. Oct. 10, 2007.
  • Nickmilder, M; Carbonnelle, S; and Bernard, A. "House cleaning with chlorinated bleach and the risks of allergic and respiratory diseases in children." Department of Public Health, Catholic University of Louvain, Brussels, Belgium. Pediatric Allergy and Immunology. February 2007. (July 1, 2008)http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17295796
  • Thompson, Andrea. "The Truth About 'Green' Cleaning Products." LiveScience. Aug. 6, 2007. (July 1, 2008)http://www.livescience.com/environment/070806_green_cleaners.html
  • University of California -- Berkeley. "Many Cleaners, Air Fresheners May Pose Health Risks When Used Indoors". ScienceDaily. May 24, 2006. (July 3, 2008)http://www.sciencedaily.com­ /releases/2006/05/060524123900.htm
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