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Cleaning can be hazardous to your health

Alicia Dahlin (Photo by Naomi Yaeger)

The way you clean your house could be making you sick.

That's what Duluthian Alicia Dahlin discovered during a long process of researching sprays and cleaners as she kept house for her family over 18 years.

"I want cleaning to be fast and easy, but I sure as heck didn't want to get sick from cleaning," Dahlin said.

Alicia Dahlin spoke to the Duluth Professional Women's Network at the Dec. 18 luncheon. Many joked that her presentation proved that they shouldn't clean at all. She pointed out that not only are some cleaners no better than grandma's vinegar and baking soda, modern cleaners actually can be harmful.

When Dahlin got married she knew she had a dust allergy and her husband had "asthma-like" symptoms, so she was prepared for a few changes.

"If I visited a friend with a cat, he couldn't sit next to me or he would start sneezing," Dahlin said.

She knew how to deal with her dust allergy: Just don't stir up the dust. Her husband's symptoms meant she had to be careful not to use laundry detergent with perfumes. Pollen bothered her husband, so she needed to dust more often and could not hang clothing outside as pollen would stick to it.

As a gardener, she learned that if she used straw or hay as mulch, it would bother her husband's allergies. "I had to figure out ways to do my hobbies and interests that wouldn't affect my husband."

Dahlin started to research garden products to learn what was in them.

When her son was born 14 years ago she became curious about how the chemicals she used to clean floors would affect the skin of a crawling baby. When her daughter was born 12 years ago, Dahlin learned she had to be careful about what kinds of soaps and lotions she used on her baby's skin, as her daughter had allergies.

"She couldn't use dollar-store lotions or certain soaps," Dahlin said. "So I had to really start reading labels finding out what was in the products I was using."

Now Dahlin wasn't only studying gardening products.

Reading the label of a mainstream product she used to clean the baby's toys, she found the cleaner wasn't supposed to be used on surfaces where food is placed. "Well, kids lick toys!" she said.

She said that looking at the ingredients on cleaning products is important.

"When you're at the grocery store and picking out food, do you look at the label before you buy it? You might check what's in it, where it came from; you want to know what you're buying. Do you do that with your cleaners? Some people do. But I'd say that most of us have no idea."

"All those pieces of information add up over time," Dahlin told the Budgeteer of her decision to become more vigilant. "It wasn't a big 'aha' moment."

When Dahlin decided to go to work in 2010, it seemed like a natural progression for her to become an independent sales consultant for Norwex, a direct-sale company focused on "improving the quality of life by radically reducing chemicals in our homes."

Dahlin's goal at the luncheon was not to sell products, but bring awareness about the use of chemically-based cleaning products in the home and their long-term effects.

She started learning about endocrine hormone disruptors and the effects this has on a child's development rate.

"Most of us know that you can get cancer from various things," Dahlin said. "Formaldehyde is one of those cancer-causing agents. It damages the neurological connectors in our body. It's an irritant to our eyes, nose, throat and lungs."

Yet formaldehyde is still an ingredient in many products, under a different name.

"And often the names of those chemicals are disguised so people don't know," Dahlin said.

Formaldehyde, which the Environmental Protection Agency has linked to cancer and respiratory problems, can be labeled as formalin or methanal.

Sometimes the labels aren't clear. Dahlin held up a container of disinfecting wipes which lists the active ingredients, then states it is made up of 99.74 percent "other ingredients."

"Well that's not fair. They don't even list them," Dahlin said.

Dahlin said that chemicals in cleaning products are not monitored closely by the government because they are not directly ingested. Unless the chemicals are proven to create severe reactions or cause accidents, the EPA does not assess for toxic impacts on human health and the environment, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council.

What chemicals should consumers look out for? Dahlin read off and described the effects of several chemicals including sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS), triclosan, phthalates, polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB), bisphenol A (BPA), polyethylene glycol (PEG) and the different names of formaldehyde.

Dahlin says her change in cleaning routines has made a difference in her family.

About six months ago, she and her husband were cleaning out cupboards and came across some of her husband's prescription allergy inhalers. They had expired without him ever using them.

"And the only thing that's changed was the way I cleaned things in the house," she said.

She doesn't clean more often, but has changed the way that she cleans.

"And now I see that the way I was cleaning before was actually triggering him and making him sick," she said.

Cleanliness without the chemicals

The information about harmful ingredients in cleaning products can be overwhelming.  

Alicia Dahlin, guest speaker at the Professional Women’s Network luncheon and Norwex sales consultant, recommends taking small steps to decrease your exposure to toxins.

“One of the best things you can do is know what you’re buying,” said Dahlin, “Take a look at the ingredients before you buy them. If there are too many things listed that you can’t pronounce, maybe think twice about it.”

Dahlin suggests the following:

  • Open windows when cleaning.

  • Look at cleaning product ingredients when purchasing.

  • Take some basic precautions when using potentially harmful chemicals.

  • Be a voice. In Europe, cleaning products manufactures are required to do tests before a product is released; not so in the U.S. Encourage your legislators to introduce a household cleaning products right to know bill. Researching information for yourself by visiting websites such as the Environmental Protection Agency and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

  • Don’t try to change all at once. Take small steps. Start with soap and laundry detergent.

Grade your cleaning product for safety

The Environmental Working Group is a nonprofit environmental research organization that assessed more than 2,000 household cleaners and found that just 7 percent of them adequately disclosed their contents.

EWG lists which products are most harmful to humans in the areas of asthma/respiratory, skin allergies and irritation, developmental and reproductive toxicity and cancer and pollution to the environment.

EWG also rates cleaning products with letter grades from A to F.  

Here are some key findings from the Environmental Working Group:

  • Some 53 percent of cleaning products assessed by EWG contain ingredients known to harm the lungs. About 22 percent contain chemicals reported to cause asthma to develop in otherwise healthy individuals.

  • Formaldehyde, a known human carcinogen, is sometimes used as a preservative or may be released by other preservatives in cleaning products. It may form when terpenes, found in citrus and pine oil cleaners and in some essential oils used as scents, react with ozone in the air.

  • Quaternary ammonium compounds (“quats”) like benzalkonium chloride, found in antibacterial spray cleaners and fabric softeners, can cause asthma.

  • The chemical 1,4-dioxane, a suspected human carcinogen, is a common contaminant of widely-used detergent chemicals.

  • Chloroform, a suspected human carcinogen, sometimes escapes in fumes released by products containing chlorine bleach.

  • Sodium borate, also known as borax, and boric acid are added to many products as cleaning agents, enzyme stabilizers or for other functions. They can disrupt the hormone system.

EWG also lists which products are most harmful to humans in the areas of asthma/respiratory, skin allergies and irritation, developmental and reproductive toxicity and cancer and pollution to the environment. The website has a guide which translates technical terms. Once on the website, search for the guide to healthy cleaning. It includes a label decoder.

Naomi Yaeger

Naomi Yaeger is a freelance writer and the former editor of the Budgeteer. See her blog at