cleaning products. toxic chemicals in cleaning products

I don’t believe in trying to scare people, but many household cleaning products have toxic chemicals. Especially volatile organic compounds  (VOCs). People can also create dangerous chemicals when they mix different cleaning supplies. It’s not like everyone will drop dead from them, but we need to know what we’re working with and what alternatives we have.

It’s not too hard to avoid volatile organic compounds in cleaning products. You just have to know what products have them and not buy them. 

VOCs can evaporate at room temperature under normal atmospheric pressure. Not all are dangerous, but many are unhealthy. (And not all toxic chemicals in household products are VOCs, by the way.)

You may buy a product that’s a liquid or solid, but if it includes VOCs, it will give off gases. Ammonia and chlorine bleach are not considered VOCs, but they, too, give off gases. These gases can irritate your eyes, nose, or throat. They can cause headaches, allergic reactions, asthma, or even cancer. 

The air you breathe, whether indoors or outdoors, contains ozone. Some VOCs combine with ozone to make formaldehyde. And formaldehyde can cause cancer in humans. 

What kinds of cleaning products have VOCs?

Cleaning products. toxic chemicals in cleaning products

Laws do not require companies to disclose all the ingredients of their cleaning products, but you can identify some hazards easily enough. 

First, if anything contains “fragrance,” leave it alone. Fragrance can mean some combination of myriad different chemicals. Since their entire purpose is to smell good, they emit gases that “stink pretty.” They are by definition VOCs.

I have found a chart of other chemicals to avoid, specifically in laundry products.

Besides fragrance-containing products, other products likely to give off dangerous gases include 

  • air fresheners—something else to avoid altogether
  • anything that comes as an aerosol spray 
  • anything with chlorine bleach or ammonia 
  • oven cleaners 
  • rug and upholstery cleaners
  • polishes for furniture and floors

Here’s a rule of thumb to keep in mind: if a chemical smells bad, it’s unhealthy. 

Mixing products with ineffective results

Commercial cleaning products have one big advantage: the manufacturers hire professional chemists who test the products to be sure that they work. And they know what not to mix. 

Most people know no more about chemistry than they remember from high school. Yet it’s easy to find people taking to the internet to recommend various do-it-yourself cleaning mixtures. Not all of them work well. 

Some are merely ineffective. Mix vinegar and baking soda, and you get a spectacular fizz. It comes from an acid (vinegar) and a base (baking soda) neutralizing each other. What’s left amounts to salt water.

If you mix the two in a sluggish drain, it can clear the blockage. Otherwise, once the fizzing stops, the two have neutralized each other. The mixture results in a useless compound that can’t clean anything.

On one article I found about homemade cleaners and whether they really work, someone commented that they mixed vinegar and Dawn dish soap to make a bathroom cleaner and a noxious smell resulted. Someone else replied that Dawn may contain ammonia. 

Upon further investigation, it appears that if Dawn does have ammonia, mixing vinegar with it wouldn’t make anything dangerous. Ammonia, like baking soda, is a base. Ammonia and vinegar will merely neutralize each other. 

Mixing products with dangerous results

Be careful trying this at home!

Some mixtures, on the other hand, are dangerous.  There’s no sense in making toxic chemicals yourself!

So if mixing vinegar and Dawn made a stench, it must have been a reaction between the vinegar and something else.

Here are some chemicals you should never mix: 

  • Bleach and vinegar produce chlorine gas, which can lead to breathing problems. Chlorine gas can mix with water to form two corrosive acids.
  • Bleach and ammonia produce chloramine. It’s used for water treatment, but it can also cause breathing problems.
  • Bleach plus rubbing alcohol produce chloroform. I read that chloroform actually has a pleasant odor and taste. It damages the brain, liver, and kidneys.
  • Hydrogen peroxide and vinegar produce a highly corrosive acid.

Sources:
Cleaning supplies and household chemicals / American Lung Association. Last updated February 12, 2020
The dangers of mixing household cleaners / US Fire Administration, March 19, 2020

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