5 Common Household Cleaners Hazardous to Your Health

Toxic cleaners
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bark/CC BY 2.0

Though many assume that some government agency oversees the safety of the multi-billion-dollar household cleaning products industry, it is largely unregulated. All those common chemical cleaners that require gloves to use and that we lock up from the kids? They undergo minimal scrutiny; what’s a consumer to do?

Environmental Working Group (EWG) to the rescue. The watchdog organization has cast plenty of research on the toxins in everything from cosmetics to food, and are now taking household cleaners to task. The comprehensive 2012 EWG Cleaners Database project, due for publication this fall, will mark the first comprehensive independent scientific analysis of toxic chemicals in more than 2,000 cleaning products and 200 brands.

In the meantime, EWG has excerpted some of the top offenders in a prequel (of sorts) report, the EWG Cleaners Hall of Shame. The report has uncovered compelling and startling facts showing that common household cleaners, including some marketed as “safe” or “natural,” can be quite hazardous to the health of unwitting users.

“Cleaning your home can come at a high price – cancer-causing chemicals in the air, an asthma attack from fumes or serious skin burns from an accidental spill,” said Jane Houlihan, EWG senior vice president for research and co-author of the EWG Cleaners Hall of Shame. “Almost any ingredient is legal and almost none of them are labeled, leaving families at risk. Our Hall of Shame products don’t belong in the home.”

All in all, it's a nasty group of products, a real bunch of thugs, that really should be avoided. Here are the worst of the worst, worthy of a shout-out from the Cleaners Hall of Shame:

1. Mop & Glo Multi-Surface Floor Cleaner
A dose of methoxydiglycol (DEGME) with your shiny floor? DEGME is "suspected of damaging the unborn child" by the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe. DEGME levels in this product are up to 15 times higher than allowed in the European Union.

2. Comet Disinfectant Cleanser Powder
EWG found that this scouring powder emitted 146 different chemicals, including some thought to cause cancer, asthma and reproductive disorders. The most toxic chemicals detected – formaldehyde, benzene, chloroform and
toluene – are not listed on the label. Little is known about the health risks of most of the contaminants found.

3. Simple Green Concentrated All-Purpose Cleaner
Marketing claims this to be “non-toxic,” but it contains 2-butoxyethanol, a solvent absorbed through the skin that irritates eyes and may damage red blood cells. A secret blend of alcohol ethoxylate surfactants; some members of this chemical family are banned in the European Union. This concentrated product is sold in a ready-to-use spray bottle despite instructions to dilute, even for heavy cleaning.

4. Scrubbing Bubbles Antibacterial Bathroom Cleaner & Extend-A-Clean Mega Shower Foamer
These products contain up to 10 percent DEGBE, also called brotherliness, a solvent banned in the European Union at concentrations above 3 percent in aerosol cleaners. It can irritate and inflame the lungs.

5. Dynamo and Fab Ultra liquid laundry detergents
These contain formaldehyde, also known as formalin, classified as a known human carcinogen by the U.S. government and World Health Organization. Formaldehyde can cause asthma and allergies. The company divulges the presence of formaldehyde in the product only on technical disclosures for workers.

Sadly, this is just the tip of the iceberg. See the full sneak-peak here: 2012 EWG Cleaners Database Hall of Shame, and check back for the full report in the fall.

See our comprehensive guide on how to avoid these toxic products: How to Go Green: Cleaning