Keeping your house spotless, shining and most of all, clean, with kids around can be a challenge. Somehow, a small handprint appears before you are even finished cleaning the windows. Even with gallant efforts to keep your abode sparkling, know that there can be dangers lurking if you are using products and chemicals that are harmful to your children.
Housekeeping.org tells us which chemicals to avoid when cleaning areas in our homes that little hands and mouths tread frequently.
The past 10 years or so have seen an explosion in the prevalence of household anti-microbial products, previously used only in clinical and industrial settings, according to Joe Walsh, founder of Green Clean Maine in Portland. As the most common consumer anti-bacterial agent, triclosan containing benzalkonium chloride may be leading to strains of bacteria that are resistant both to disinfectants and prescription antibiotics.
“Before you reach for the bottle of anti-bacterial hand soap or kitchen counter cleaner, consider plain old soap and water as an alternative,” says Walsh. “It’s often cheaper and is all you need to get the job done.”
2. Benzalkonium Chloride
Also found in many anti-bacterial products, benzalkonium chloride offers many of the same risks as triclosan. Although antibacterial products promote clean health, a growing chorus of researchers and medical professionals are raising concerns about the health effects of the widespread use of anti-microbial agents in the home, says Walsh.
“The idea is that highly disinfected household environments prevent children from developing strong immune systems early in life,” says Walsh. “Without the challenge of bacteria exposure, the immune system gets lazy and underdeveloped.”
3. Alkylphenol Ethoxylates
Chemicals that end in “-phenolethoxylate” are commonly used in surfactants, such as those found in all-purpose cleaners. “They are estrogen mimickers, which makes them particularly harmful to women and especially children,” says Walsh. “They do not break down in the environment, but persist and bioaccumulate, meaning they build up in human tissue over time.”
The most reliable way to find out if your household cleaning products have this family of chemicals is to look the product up in the U.S. Department Health and Human Services’ National Household Products Database.
4. Chlorine Bleach
Danger is lurking when a child is exposed to chlorine bleach. Keeping bleach around increases the risk of a child ingesting it, spilling it or touching a surface that has been cleaned with bleach. In addition to being highly toxic on its own, chlorine bleach also forms carcinogenic compounds, including chloroform, when it mixes with organic materials in the general environment, says Walsh.
Luckily, there are great alternatives to bleach that can whiten without the dangerous side-effects. Walsh suggests non-chlorine bleach, such as hydrogen peroxide, or oxygen bleaches and sodium percarbonate. “The use of the detergent booster, washing soda, will also help to keep clothes bright and white without bleach,” says Walsh.
Although ammonia may make your glass surfaces shine, the harmful chemical is not advised as kid-friendly. “Ammonia can be toxic to the skin, eyes and lungs and like bleach, it’s far too easy to mix it with other things unknowingly,” says Walsh. Many household cleaners contain ammonia, but as a rule, it is in the traditional glass bottle cleaners, as well as metal and oven cleaners.
This type of chemical includes ethylene glycol, propylene glycol, butyl cellusolve and anything under the heading of petroleum distillates. According to Walsh, the acute effects of exposure are eye, skin and mucus membrane irritation. The long-term risks include nervous system damage and liver, blood, lung and kidney damage.
“Daily VOC exposure in children has been directly linked to asthma, and in mothers has been directly linked to diarrhea, earaches and even depression,” says Walsh. To avoid VOCs, look for products that contain a warning label that the product is “combustible” or “flammable.” Many products with VOCs also offer precautionary statements that the product can cause respiratory irritation or recommend using in a well-ventilated area.
While trying to keep your carpets clean, avoid products with perchlorethylene, a common agent in carpet and upholstery shampoos. This carcinogen against animals is claimed to be harmful for the liver, kidneys and nervous system, according to Kris Koenig, CEO of Natura Clean, a residential and commercial cleaning company in Middleton, Wisconsin.
According to Koenig, the effects of exposure to perchlorethylene can include dizziness, fatigue, headaches and irritation to skin, eyes, nose and throat.
Your children are frequent loungers on the couch, chairs and furniture within the home. Ensure they are not at risk while watching their favorite TV show by avoiding use of nitrobenzene, a common chemical found in furniture and floor polishes. “Small amounts can cause minor skin irritation,” says Koenig, “but regular exposure to high concentrations can reduce the blood’s ability to carry oxygen.”
Mold and mildew poses risk for your family as it is, but disinfectants with formaldehyde are just as harmful, says Koenig. Formaldehyde is used as a disinfectant in mold and mildew removers and some dishwashing liquid. Check your labels to ensure that you are not posing more risk when cleaning.
Exposure to high doses of this chemical can affect the mucous membranes, with some people developing sensitivity and triggers to asthma attacks, says Koenig.
Even though you may think you are providing a sanitary and clean environment for your children when tossing dirty laundry into the washer, there may be harmful chemicals that will pose a risk for the family’s health. Phosphates, commonly found in laundry and dishwashing detergents, are also fertilizers, which means that they can cause rapid algae growth after washed away into rivers and lakes, says Koenig. Ensure you are keeping your household healthy and the environment safe by straying from products with these chemicals.
If you’re concerned that all of your household cleaning products pose risks to your children, there are plenty of eco-friendly alternatives to keep your home sparkling clean. According to Leslie Reichert, cleaning expert and author of “The Joy of Green Cleaning,” you should only use items you could eat when cleaning around children.
“You can do a fabulous job cleaning with things like white vinegar, baking soda, salt and lemon juice,” she says. “If you feel like you have to disinfect things, you can use hydrogen peroxide (which is safe enough to use as a mouth wash) or conquer stains on sinks and counters with toothpaste. We really don’t need to use any toxic chemicals around our children.”