Home may be a refuge for the soul - but not necessarily for the body. Sometimes it seems that people spend more time figuring out their colour scheme and selecting the doodads than they do worrying about what they're breathing on their own turf. But indoor air pollution is one of the top five environmental risks to public health, creating hazards like eye, nose and throat irritation, headaches, loss of coordination, nausea, cancer and liver, kidney and nervous system damage!
And despite what the ads say, clean air is not necessarily a matter of putting out an air freshener. In fact, some of those contain formaldehyde, a highly toxic chemical. And air fresheners' synthetic fragrances, like many household hygiene products, are also a problem for allergic folks and could potentially be damaging the rest of us, too.
A ubiquitous ingredient in many cleaning products is chlorine. If you see anything blue or that turns blue when you use it, that's the bad stuff. Unfortunately, when chlorine combines with organic ingredients like food scraps (say in your dishwasher) or urine (in your bathroom), trihalomethanes result, and they're a suspected carcinogen.
Another thing to keep in mind about many commercial cleaners is that they're petroleum-based. If your motto is "No blood for oil," switch to vegetable-based products. The natural citrus-based products are excellent for cutting through grease and grime. You can also do just fine, say those who've experimented, with lemon juice for cutting grease, vinegar for glass and shiny surfaces, baking soda, salt or borax as safer scouring powders, and all-purpose soap . You can make a good furniture polish by mixing three parts olive oil and one part vinegar.
For a comprehensive list of natural home cleaner recipes, see ems.org/household_cleaners/alternatives. html. Finally, if you're freaked about germs, remember you can get extra disinfectant power by adding a little tea tree oil or grapefruit seed extract to your soap and water.
WHAT THE EXPERTS SAY
"When you bring any chemicals into your home, there's a heightened risk that you'll be exposed to them for a longer period of time. Chlorine and ammonia, when they mix together in the air, can form a toxic gas. When you're cleaning your bathroom and use chlorine bleach on your sink and then spray glass cleaner with ammonia, there you go. The other most dangerous cleaners are the scum-killers, the things you just spray on and they eat away at all the gunk. Those are corrosive: they can burn skin when they enter the air, they can burn your nose and your eyes."
RICH WHATE , environmentalist, former researcher with Toronto Environmental Alliance
"Over 23,000 substances are used commercially in Canada, and only 69 single chemicals or chemical groups have been fully evaluated. Standard testing looks at cancer and skin toxicity. What's missing is evaluating effects on the developing brain, in utero and in young children. Twenty-eight per cent of Canadian children have one or more learning or behavioural problems. Autism was seen in one in 10,000 live births 20 years ago in Canada; now it's one in 286. We know lead, mercury and PCBs are bad for kids' brains. The concern is that a whole lot of other products could have developmental neurotoxic effects. But our information base is exceptionally poor."
KATHY COOPER , senior researcher, Canadian Environmental Law Association, Toronto
"Consumers can be confident that the products they buy have a beneficial effect on their health by reducing the spread of germs and allergens and by making their homes and workplaces more pleasant. In Canada, laundry powders and liquids, fabric softeners and dishwashing liquids are regulated under the Hazardous Products Act (HPA). Cleaning products are regulated under the Food & Drugs Act. Any new substances used in consumer products are subject to assessment under the Canadian Environmental Protection Act (CEPA)."
SHANNON COOMBS , executive director, Canadian Consumer Specialty Products Association, Ottawa
"Consumers assume that products are safe if the government isn't saying they're unsafe. However, very little research has been done into low-level chronic or frequent exposures to many of the ingredients of common household products, either singly or in combination. Using non-petroleum-based products with no synthetic fragrances would cut out a whole bunch of the most likely harmful ingredients."
LYNN MARSHALL , MD, president, American Academy of Environmental Medicine, medical director, Environmental Health Clinic, Sunnybrook and Women's College Health Sciences Centre, Toronto
"The Consumer Chemical and Containers Regulations (CCCR) set the limits for each chemical, and it's up to industry to evaluate the toxicity of their products against government criteria. The CCCR is designed (to address) acute exposures. We have joined an international agreement to look at consumer products for their chronic effects. The CCCR is really good legislation; it gives consumers a lot of direction on how to use a product safely. We would like consumers to read labels more closely."
CHRISTINE SIMPSON , product safety officer, Health Canada, Hamilton