How To Choose Cleaning Products

When the bathroom starts to look grubby 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.

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.

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.

S.C. Johnson, maker of various cleaning products, did not reply to a request for comment on the health and environmental issues related to its products.

However, there is not enough information on the health effects of the chemicals used in green products to know whether they are truly better for the health of humans, Natan said.

Given the lack of firm data and reliable studies on many chemicals, however, the choice between conventional and green cleaning products may for many people be based on politics and sentiments more than health.

In response to these issues of uncertain exposures, companies such as Method and Seventh Generation say they take care to exclude chemicals with known or suspected toxicities.

According to Martin Wolf, director of product and environmental technology for Seventh Generation, company guidelines specify that ingredients in their products cannot be toxic to the user either immediately or when used over time and that they cannot contribute to environmental problems such as global warming, ozone layer depletion, aquatic toxicity or air pollution.

And Dow is currently working toward making safety assessments of its products publicly available by 2015, and it has begun making some resins from ethanol instead of petroleum in Brazil, where ethanol is widely used.

Method and Seventh Generation are working on the performance of their products to bring them up to par, with considerable success, they say. Both companies test their products against top-rated conventional brands to make sure they clean comparably.