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We can probably agree that cleaning and disinfecting our living spaces is good for our well-being. At the same time, some products contain ingredients that, if not handled properly, can be unhealthy. And, if they wind up in the hands of children, the products can be downright harmful or even lethal.
To protect against accidental poisoning, most families tuck their cleaning products away in cabinets with safety latches or place them on shelves out of reach when their babies begin to move. It is also important to be in the know about how certain products can cause harm when they come in contact with the skin, the eyes, and the respiratory system.
So we’ve rounded up seven products that can cause harm, especially to vulnerable groups like children and pregnant women. We don’t suggest that you rid your house of every cleaning product, but rather that you become informed so you can choose what preventive steps you need to take for a safe home. This includes switching brands, taking extra precautions when handling certain products, decreasing the amount of product that you’re using, and cleaning with some products only when your little ones are not around.
The American Lung Association advises consumers to use certain cleaning products with caution1. This includes various products that are manufactured with volatile organic compounds (VOCs), chemicals that can vaporize and lead to respiratory problems, allergic reactions, headaches, and more.
Asthma is one area of concern. Some studies suggest that cleaning products with VOCs can cause asthma in otherwise healthy people. One study found a 30 to 50 percent increased risk in developing asthma when using spray cleaners such as air fresheners, glass cleaners, and furniture cleaning sprays2.
The other obvious threat is that when young children and infants come into contact with dangerous cleaning products, they are prone to ingest the products, which can cause various symptoms, up to and including death.
Pro Tip: When using cleaning products, open windows for optimum ventilation.
Currently, U.S. manufacturers of cleaning products are not legally required to list ingredients on their labels and can use almost any ingredient, including some substances known to cause harm to fetuses and infants.
What’s a parent to do? One course of action is to consult a database of safe products from a reputable source.
One of these sources is the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Safer Choice program. The EPA’s database contains only products that have been evaluated and are Safer-Choice certified.
Another place to look is the Environmental Working Group’s Guide to Healthy Cleaning. It contains information on over 2,000 products and nearly 200 brands, all of which have been evaluated for human health and environmental safety. You can both check on the safety rating of products that you are currently using and easily search for recommended replacements.
According to the Cleveland Clinic3, consumers should pay special attention to the following product categories.
The packaging of laundry detergent can be appealing to small children. The bottles are colorful, and the pods are soft and bright, resembling candy or small toys. However, detergent can cause great harm if ingested. Detergents contain enzymes to loosen stains and ground-in dirt. Cationic (as opposed to anionic or nonionic) enzymes are the most toxic, causing nausea, shock, convulsions, and comas. Nonionic enzymes can irritate skin and eyes.
The detergent pods have also caused harm to children (and even teens) in recent years, causing vomiting, severe breathing issues, burns to the esophagus, and comas.
Many cleaners contain detergents, grease-cutting agents, solvents, and disinfectants. In addition to being poisonous if swallowed, many cleaners can irritate the eyes, throat, nose, and skin.
Hopefully your children will not attempt a science experiment (aka TikTok challenge) with your cleaning products, but it is worth noting that mixing cleaners can also be extremely harmful, especially those containing bleach and ammonia. The combination of the two produces a gas called chloramine, which can cause breathing issues and is potentially fatal.
Did You Know? Pine- and citrus-based cleaners contain terpenes, one class of VOCs. Formaldehyde has been detected in these products and can increase the risk of developing asthma.
The sharp odor of bleach indicates its toxicity. Chlorine bleach can irritate the eyes, nose, and throat. It can also irritate the skin or cause dermatitis if you come in direct contact with it.
If ingested, bleach can cause damage to the esophagus and stomach as well as prolonged nausea and vomiting. In some cases, it can even cause death.
While hand dishwashing detergents are milder than automatic dishwashing detergents, know that either can cause skin irritation or burns. If swallowed, the detergents can cause irritation to the mouth and throat and cause nausea.
FYI: Be wary when a product is listed as “green.” This label does not necessarily mean that the product is free of harmful substances.
Many oven cleaners contain lye, a corrosive agent that can burn skin and eyes and cause severe tissue damage. And lye is often fatal if swallowed.
It is worthwhile to find a product without lye. If you do use a product with lye, you may want to clean the oven when your children are out of the home and be sure that the area is well ventilated.
Air fresheners, including sprays, diffusers, incense, and candles, can contribute to poor air quality. Just the opposite of what we are trying to achieve (fresh air!). VOCs that are emitted from air fresheners can cause irritation to the eyes, nose, and throat; asthma attacks; difficulty breathing; nausea; and migraine headaches. The amount of VOCs emitted depends on the composition of the fragrance, not on the type of air freshener.
Some upholstery and rug cleaners emit fumes that have been associated with cancer and liver damage. They can also cause dizziness, nausea, and disorientation.
Furniture polish can cause irritation to the eyes, nose, throat, lungs, and windpipe.
Did You Know? Two nontoxic products that are great for cleaning are baking soda and vinegar.
It’s easy to throw up your arms in frustration believing that everything has some kind of hidden danger. Don’t fall prey to this type of thinking. Safe cleaning products do exist out there. It may just take a little bit of time and effort on your part to learn what you can use and how you should use it in order to have both a clean house and healthy kids. But if you’ve read this far, it’s safe to say that you’ll continue your journey to a safe and happy home.
American Lung Association. (2022). Cleaning Supplies and Household Chemicals.
EWG. (2022). About EWG’s Guide to Healthy Cleaning.
Cleveland Clinic. (2022). Household Chemical Products and Their Health Risk.