It’s a tale of two labels. One side features giddy bubbles, pristine pine trees or smiling bald men like me.
But flip the cleaning product around and you’ll see entirely different symbols. Skulls, do-not-touch signs, caution, warning, danger.
There are more than 80,000 synthetic chemicals registered for use in the United States. Most are dangerous to humans and the environment in some form. Only 400 have been properly tested for toxicity or long-term health effects.
The next time you purchase chemical cleaners for your home, and to use around your children, forget about the front label and look for the fine print on the back.
Here’s a list of common chemicals to avoid, the Noxious Nine:
9) Petroleum Distillates
Derived from crude oil and used as air fresheners and deodorizers, distillates have been shown to harm respiratory systems to the point of pneumonia when inhaled.
This group contains innumerable harmful and toxic chemicals that could comprise a top 10 list of its own—triclosan, aldehydes, quaternary compounds, coal tars. Many damage endocrine levels and propagate antibiotic-resistant superbugs through their kill actions.
Nitrobenzene is found in floor and furniture polish, paint solvents and is used as a cheap perfume for soaps. It’s not only toxic but also readily absorbed through the skin and can cause anemia, liver and kidney damage and increased heart rate.
This carpet and dry cleaning agent, also found in stainless steel cleaners and furniture polishes, is used as a solvent for organic compounds. It’s also carcinogenic and absorbed through the skin, a disclosure you probably won’t see on your dry cleaning bill.
Household ammonia has been known to cause minor skin irritation, nausea and respiratory problems if not handled carefully. Luckily, humans can break down ammonia into harmless components that are expelled from the body, but not before suffering through rashes or an upset stomach.
4) Hydrochloric Acid
This compound is used for cleaning brick and concrete and is found in some toilet bowl cleaners. It has a corrosive effect on human tissue, and concentrated forms can create acidic mists. It can also blind end-users and burn layers of skin.
One of the most omnipresent, overused and improperly used cleaning compounds, bleach is caustic and fuming, burns skin and can damage our respiratory systems. It can also be deadly if accidentally mixed with ammonia.
Out of all fragrance chemicals, 84 percent have never been tested for toxicity. That’s because they often account for less than 0.1% of a cleaning product and are not required to be shown on the label; this despite their links to asthma, central nervous system disorders and birth defects.
Formaldehyde is highly toxic to humans, no matter the method of intake. A well-documented and potent carcinogen, its toxicity and pervasive nature in the cleaning industry make it bottom of the barrel in our Noxious Nine.
Anselm Doering is the president and CEO of EcoLogic Solutions, a Brooklyn-based manufacturer of environmentally preferable cleaning chemicals and technologies. A certified B Corporation, EcoLogic is a recipient of the 2012 EPA Environmental Quality Award.
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Ed: Stephanie V. & Brianna B.