We’ve all seen the ads: Mom holds up some or other cleaning agent used in the bathroom, kitchen and so on, and tells you that this product will keep you and your family ‘safe’ as it ‘kills more than 99.9% of all germs’. Great. Except the same stuff that ‘kills the germs’ also kills everything downstream once you flush, sending toxins into the collective water supply, which may or may not all be eliminated when that same water comes round again after recycling, and also kills all other living things, more or less, including humans and pets. It is only in recent years that the long-term impacts of growing up in chemically ‘sterilized’ conditions is beginning to show on whole generations’ health, and little of it in a good way. But there are natural options to harsh chemicals. We take a look.
Obviously almost everyone wants their home or office to be clean and fresh, everything sparkling and spotless. It’s important in business to put on a good appearance and one doesn’t want business associates or staff contracting diseases which could be avoided. On the home front, we all want what’s best for our families. Turns out that what’s best for us and our loved ones is not some 1950s era notion that the more toxic chemicals one can throw at the ‘nasty bugs’ the better. Rather, it is nature doing what nature does with us helping it along. But a lot of people are still held in the grip of the chemical industry propaganda and misunderstandings of past eras, and they don’t necessarily fully trust so-called ‘eco-friendly’ cleaning products to really get the job done.
But it’s a myth the ‘eco-friendly’ means a free meal ticket for the nasties and potential health issues for the family and pets. Effective hygiene simply does not require ever-stronger chemicals floating about or waiting to be picked up unintentionally from exposed surfaces. Eco-friendly products can be just as effective with natural harmless ingredients – and some turn out to be even more effective at getting rid of the nasty bugs than even some of the most toxic and harmful chemical cleaners on the market. Also, unlike conventional cleaning agents, the’green’ variety aren’t corrosive, so you needn’t worry about spoiling your brand new bathroom surfaces with vicious chemicals or contributing to deadly toxins entering water systems. When you pull the flusher handle after loading your loo with bleach or you rinse out the contents of the kitchen sink after you’ve smothered it in anti-bug potions, some of the longer-lived effective ingredients will eventually end up in a sewer or septic tank system or, worse still, the sea, soil and waterways.
This type of largely un-thought of contamination happens routinely in much of the world, dramatically decreasing water quality and, eventually, affecting fish and other wildlife. For example, a rather common class of chemicals known as alkylphenol ethoxylates (APEs) have been found to harm the reproduction and survival of salmon, among other fish, due to mimicking the hormone estrogen. There are other known endocrine simulators and disruptors which are now being linked back to a whole range of degenerative health conditions, especially those affecting the nervous system and the digestive system of those who are especially sensitive or who have been over-exposed.
There are lots of other harmful chemicals hiding in your cleaning products, such as sodium hypochlorite (basically, super-strong bleach), trisodium nitrilotriacetate, xylene, phosphates, 2-butoxyethanol, silica and methylene chloride, and they all contribute to the poisoning of our environment. Phosphates, for example, are a group of water-softening mineral additives which act as a fertiliser when introduced into the waterways, leading to an overgrowth of algae which eventually depletes the water’s oxygen supply, harming and killing fish and other aquatic life.
Unfortunately it doesn’t end downstream in some now toxic swamp, the remnants of what used to be a pristine wetland. Residue from these products gets left behind on work surfaces, in baths and sinks and on your taps, floors and carpets. From there, you are probably in contact with these chemicals on a daily basis and that can’t be good. These products have the potential to cause respiratory irritation, chemical burns, watery eyes, irritate asthma, and in severe cases with prolonged exposure, can cause cancer.
SIMPLE AND EASY
The simple and easy solution is to eradicate such toxins from your home and business altogether and switch to eco-friendly cleaning products – an easy and effective solution that you can start straight away. Most manufacturers of such products not only go out of their way to produce earth-friendly products, they do so because they are passionate about the cause of both human health and that of the natural environment. What makes natural products so much more healthy is that we tend to replace many toxic chemical products with one or two natural products, once we get the picture and want to make the switch because, in eco terms, less us usually ‘more’. The fewer products used, the less damage to the environment, goes this formula. One of the main problems with chemical agents, aside from their inherent toxicity, is that most people use more than one cleaning product for the bathroom or kitchen – there is one for the toilet, one for the mirror, perhaps one for surfaces, another to clean mildew from tiles and then tons of other ‘specialised’ cleaning product options. Repeated exposures to the multiple chemicals in all of these products adds up over time, becoming in some cases a toxic burden that’s too much for your body, or those of your family, to cope with.
DIRTY CLEAN INGREDIENTS
Certain chemicals commonly found in conventional cleaning products present known or suspected problems for the people that use them, and their impact on the environment once washed down the drain is well documented. Volatile organic compounds, used to enhance the performance of a product, can impair neurological functions in humans and animals, for example, while other chemicals can act as respiratory irritants, carcinogens or reproductive toxins, depending upon the extent of exposure, according to the National Environmental Trust and other environmental groups. As indicated, phosphates can cause the eutrophication of rivers and other bodies of water, which can deplete them of oxygen and decrease water quality for creatures living in these waters – but there are growing indications that even after treatment water from systems badly affected by toxic chemical build up is not entirely safe to drink. There is little effective regulation of cleaning chemicals, and labelling requirements don’t always tell people what they need to know regarding what they are exposing themselves and the planet to.
Companies select ingredients for cleaning products to enhance their performance, but a lot of the chemicals, we simply don’t know anything about. Bear in mind for a moment that in the late 1990s it was estimated by leading US scientists that as many as 200 000 entirely new-to-nature chemicals had been developed in labs globally since the end of the World War II.
For example, phthalates, which are suspected or strongly believed to have adverse hormonal effects, help distribute dyes and fragrances and act as plasticisers (they are widely used in the plastics industry but also in the cleaning and bodily product industries). Other chemicals, like parabens, are used to keep a product stable on the shelf, while still others, such as glycols, act like anti-freeze. Yet other chemicals could simply be impurities left over from the manufacturing process – and they certainly won’t be declared on any label. With some 80 000 chemicals in common use daily, there are still some that could have as-yet unknown toxic effects. More likely, say concerned chemists, there are going to be in-body chemical interactions which, until specifically studied, we will remain entirely ignorant of, including what dread
diseases may be brewed in the process.
Obviously leading chemical companies are not out to literally poison their customers – that would be suicidal for them as businesses, especially if it got out that they were aware of the negatives attached to one or more of their products. But these companies operate with much narrow parameters than most of us realise – they set out to solve, using chemicals, a particular problem and if their solution is effective and there are no obvious and immediate glaring dangers, they will go ahead and market their new products, perhaps where required by national governments, with appropriate warnings for known dangers, but also maybe not. Given the lack of firm data and reliable studies on many chemicals, the choice between conventional and green cleaning products may for many people be based on politics and sentiments more than health.
Added to this, it is not yet entirely clear whether all the products now marketed under ‘green’ or ‘eco’ labels are necessarily safer than their chemical cousins, remembering that for the purposes of this article we have, artificially to some degree, separated natural cleaning products’ contents from those of ‘chemical cleaners’ – in the end, all are working on either chemical solutions to our cleaning needs or in some cases using bacteriological counter-measures (so-called ‘good’ bugs) which do us no health harm but which out-feast the nasties, leaving them nothing to grow on or feed on.
There will likely always be a knowledge gap in terms of what we think of as best for us and our family when it comes to this issue – and deciding to use a ‘natural’ product is not an automatic free pass to quit thinking about what one is doing. Each of us has the responsibility to look carefully into what we use, not only from a health and an eco-impact downstream point of view but what it takes to manufacture and bring to us these products. And we simply cannot in good faith assume that any manufacturer, whether of self-proclaimed ‘chemicals’ or of ‘natural products’, is necessarily telling us everything we should know – the makers of such products are often finding out more about their effects over the long term but in a process which obviously must itself take time. So it comes down to you, the consumer, in the end. You, and each one of us who lays down money for products, must apply our minds to what we are buying, what system we are supporting, what practices we are encouraging and entrenching and what things we are releasing into our domains, bodies and eco-systems. Natural products may well do what they say can;and they may well be safer overall.
But it is important to remember that no substance, even plain pure water, is entirely free from becoming itself a poison, dose being the determining factor. Therefore, the final word on cleaning products, of any kind including ‘natural’, is sensible, limited and constrained use with the notion that when it comes to pouring toxins or potential toxins around, even those less harmful than some other types, less is always likely to be better than more in the end.