If you are buying scented air fresheners and household cleaning products, chances are you are exposing yourself to chemicals that are bad for you. For example, The NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council) recently found that 12 out of 14 popular air freshener brands contained phthalates, chemicals that can cause hormonal abnormalities, birth defects and reproductive problems. The National Academy of Sciences (NAS) reports that “95 percent of the ingredients used to create fragrances today are synthetic compounds derived from petroleum, including benzene derivatives, aldehydes, and many other known toxins and sensitizers.”
Most of us, unwittingly, buy such products containing ingredients that are either poorly studied, not studied at all, or are known to pose potentially serious health risks. Of the roughly 17,000 chemicals found in common household products, only 3 in 10 have been tested for their effects on human health. Why? Because the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission does not require manufacturers to test household cleaning products before they appear on store shelves.
While it shouldn’t be assumed that because an item is on the shelf it has been tested for safety, you also shouldn’t assume that if it says “natural” it’s safe. The word “natural” is undefined and unregulated by the government and can be applied to just about anything. So, if you’re standing in the grocery isle holding what appears to be a natural, nice-smelling cleaner for example, know that its label provides only limited information at best. According to the Children’s Health Environmental Coalition, a national nonprofit that educates the public on environmental toxins that affect children’s health, labels often omit inactive or inert ingredients that can make up as much as 90 percent of a product’s volume. These include solvents, dispersal agents, dyes and fragrances, some of which can pollute the air and water. Other ingredients that are not mentioned can be carcinogens or worsen existing health problems like allergies and asthma. And because no standards exist, claims like “eco-safe” and “environmentally friendly” are also meaningless, says the Consumers Union.
Here are some ways to keep you and your family safe from dangerous, artificially scented household products:
- Use products with scents from natural or botanical sources or labeled as essential oils. These are different from fragrance oils which are created with synthetic chemicals. Examine the list of ingredients to check that the word “fragrance” does not appear.
- Scented candles may release mercury and other toxins into the air you breathe. Candles that have shiny metal wicks are made of lead which can be released into the air and turn into dust that settles on you and your furniture. Try unscented soy or beeswax alternatives, or those scented with essential oils.
- Avoid scented aerosol sprays, liquids that emit a continuous scent, and solid air fresheners. Instead, use: a non-aerosol citrus spray containing only citrus peel extracts, an open box of baking soda, essential oil on a piece of cotton or in a diffuser, or try opening a window.
- Fabric dryer sheets and potpourri that list “fragrance” on the label mean that synthetic chemicals were used, and they should be avoided. A non-toxic alternative to dryer sheets: put one or two drops of an essential oil on a washcloth and put it in the dryer with your laundry.
- Since only food and herbs can be certified organic, the word “organic” on the label of a scented dish or laundry soap, for example, doesn’t mean much.
- Most conventional dish and laundry detergents are made from petroleum, a nonrenewable synthetic resource, so look for naturally derived or plant-based formulas that are biodegradable and contain no phosphates.
- Choose “non-chlorine bleach” cleaning solutions and scouring powders. Fumes of cleansers containing a high concentration of chlorine can irritate the lungs, which is dangerous for those with asthma, emphysema or a heart condition. The risks are compounded when the cleansers are used in small, poorly ventilated rooms, such as the bathroom. Fragranced chlorine bleaches are even worse because the odor is disguised, which can lead to dangerous overexposure.
- White vinegar, borax, salt, herbs, olive oil, cornstarch and lemon juice have been used as cleansers for decades and have proved to be effective and safer for humans, pets and the environment.
- Recipes to make environmentally safe cleansers from oven cleaners to mildew removers can be found online at: www.care2.com, www.almanac.com (hit the Food button, then scroll down to “Kitchen Tips and Tricks” and click on the “helpful advice and handy kitchen hints link”) and www.organizedhome.com.
- Information about safe cleaning products can be found at: www.greenhome.com, www.checnet.org (Children’s Health Environmental Coalition), www.householdproducts.nlm.nih.gov and www.kidsorganics.com/Chemicals%20to%20Avoid.htm.
- You can find environmentally safe products from Bon Ami, Ecover, Seventh Generation, BioShield, Earth Friendly and Greenwood Naturals, a lavender-based essential oil product produced by EO Products.
If all this seems overwhelming, think about just one “healthy” scented cleaning product you can purchase today and commit to buying it. This small, simple act could have a major effect on you and your family’s health.