Are “Green” Household Products better than Conventional?

When the bathroom starts to look dingy and you pull out all the conventional brushes, sponges, sprays and bleach and start scrubbing, you expose yourself to hundreds of chemicals that have known, and possibly unknown, toxic effects.

Green cleaning products claim to offer safer alternatives for humans and the planet, but at a higher price. So what’s an environmentally conscious consumer to do?

When it comes to humans, the use of any one cleaning product—green or conventional—in small amounts and with proper ventilation probably won’t make you ill, says Tom Natan, a chemical engineer with the non-profit National Environmental Trust.
The problem is that most people use more than one cleaning product for the bathroom—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 “specialized” cleaning product options. The repeated exposures to the chemicals in all of these products can add up, Natan said.

“We are exposed, in the process of cleaning our homes, to more than the manufacturers projected,” Natan said. “You get the sum total together, and you’ve got to wonder, why are you using these things?”

And that’s just the story for humans. Factor in the overall planet’s health, and it gets murkier.

Certain chemicals commonly found in conventional cleaning products present known or suspected problems for the people that use them and the environment once washed down the drain.

Volatile organic compounds, used to enhance the performance of a product, can impair neurological functions, 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.

Phosphates can cause the eutrophication of rivers and other bodies of water, which can deplete them of oxygen and decrease water quality.

There is little regulation of cleaning chemicals, and there are virtually no labeling requirements to let people know 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,” Natan said.

For example, phthalates, which are suspected to have adverse hormonal effects, help distribute dyes and fragrances and act as plasticizers. Other chemicals are used to keep a product stable on the shelf, while others, such as glycols, act like anti-freeze. Still other chemicals could simply be impurities left over from the manufacturing process.

With some 80,000 chemicals in common use, there are still some that could have as-yet unknown toxic effects.

The kicker: You don’t really need any chemicals to clean, said Natan, of the National Environmental Trust. “These chemicals make cleaning easier, but they don’t make cleaning any better.”The largely American tendency toward germophobia has partly been fueled by advertising that promotes disinfecting cleaners that eradicate all bacteria in sight as the best way to protect your family from germs. But you don’t really need to kill the bacteria, you just need to get them off your table, Natan said.In fact, disinfectants could do more harm than good to humans. Natan’s group tested one popular disinfectant spray and found that it contained a chemical known to damage the reproductive systems in the offspring of pregnant rats, even in small amounts.To clean your house, we recommend using all natural plant surfactants and enzymes which help to break down dirt, grease and grime and neutralize odors. They can be used safely in septic systems and are biodegradable.

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