Cleaning your home is essential for maintaining a sanitary and pleasant environment. So the last thing you want to do is to introduce harmful chemicals in a place you are trying to make safer. Unfortunately, too often that is just what we do when we clean.
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For although they have improved over the past decade, cleaning chemicals may still contain ingredients that can be harmful to the environment after use and may also pose unnecessary health risks to home occupants. Furthermore, they may be packaged in a way that wastes limited resources and takes up valuable landfill space.
We provide here a list of cleaner traits to look for and avoid, emphasizing those that a consumer can check from the product label off the shelf.
Many of the most important attributes, however, may not be apparent from the label and may require a call to the manufacturer or other source of information. For example, if a manufacturer does not claim that a product is biodegradable, it would be impossible for consumers to determine whether it is or is not without a knowledge of the ingredients and their chemistry.
For each characteristic on the list, we briefly indicate its significance and how a consumer might determine whether a product has that characteristic.
Traits to look for:
1. When necessary, Citrus- or hydrogen peroxide-based sanitizers or disinfectants rather than chlorine-based ones (see item #2 below in "Traits to avoid").
- Generally, a citrus-based or hydrogen peroxide formula has less potential to harm the environment because chlorine can form organic compounds that are toxic even at low doses.
- The product label will list the active ingredient.
- Directions for use may or may not indicate water temperature to be used.
3. Product packaging that is minimal and recyclable.
- Unnecessary packaging wastes resources and fills up landfill space. Avoid multi-layer packaging.
- The recyclability of a package is often indicated on the bottom of a bottle, with the chasing arrows symbol; plastics labeled 1 (PET) or 2 (HDPE) are recyclable in many areas, whereas 3 (PVC) is not.
4. Biodegradable products
- Biodegradable products decompose in the environment into minerals and carbon dioxide and water. Products that do not biodegrade linger in the environment and may get taken up by other organisms or cause harm in their active form.
- Many manufacturers make the claim that their product is biodegradable, but lack of such a claim does not mean the product is or is not biodegradable.
Traits to avoid:
1. "Toxic" hazard warnings on label.
- If a product has such a warning, it can be very harmful to anyone who is exposed to it.
- By law, such a warning must appear on the product label.
2. Disinfectants for most home uses.
- In general, thorough cleaning will provide the necessary sanitation for most home situations. Situations involving those with compromised immune systems or baby-changing areas may require a sanitizer, in which case a benign formula should be used according to the instructions (see item 1 above in "Traits to look for").
- Labels will indicate whether the product is registered as a disinfectant or sanitizer.
3. Products containing potentially harmful but commonly-used ingredients such as alkylphenolethoxylates (APEs), certain glycol ethers (such as 2-butoxyethanol), or heavy metals (such as chromium or selenium).
- Although most household cleaners will not generally cause harm if used as recommended because of the low levels of exposure, the presence of potentially harmful ingredients may pose an unnecessary risk, especially to vulnerable populations like children, when safer substitutes exist. Some common cleaning ingredients may be possible endocrine disruptors or possible carcinogens.
- Product labels may or may not specify the ingredients.
4. Products with any significant amount of phosphate (above 0.5%).
- Phosphates cause problems in water bodies, contaminating water and stressing aquatic life.
- Product labels may or may not specify the ingredients.
5. Products with high levels of volatile organic compounds.
- Volatile organic compounds (or VOCs) may contribute to outdoor air pollution (smog) and may cause respiratory distress or other illnesses indoors.
- VOC level is unlikely to be indicated on product labels. Contact the manufacturer.
6. Products which contain a builder known as EDTA.
- EDTA has several unappealing properties in the environment, including not being biodegradable and chelating (or taking up) heavy metals.
- Product labels may or may not specify the ingredients. In case the label spells out the ingredients, EDTA stands for ethylenediaminetetraacetic acid.
By selecting a green cleaner for your home, you are doing your part not only to safeguard your family and the environment, but also to signal to the market that green cleaners are demanded and should be produced instead of more conventional ones.
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