Consumer Products

What are the risks to my child if I use household cleaning products? Are there alternatives?

Children can be sensitive to the chemicals in everyday cleaning products, especially if they have allergies or asthma. Because children spend 80% to 90% of their time indoors, cleaning products can pose health risks for them.
Household cleaning products can add to indoor air pollution in many ways:

  • They send toxins out into the air when they are used.
  • Residue can be left on indoor surfaces (like the floors and tables).
  • They gradually send toxins out into the home when they're stored.

The strong chemicals in cleaning products may cause even more cleaning power than what is needed. Some of these products are strong poisons and others contain ingredients that may be toxic.

Products that are poisonous or corrosive (can burn holes in clothes and eat away layers of skin) are marked with hazard symbols. But these warnings are only used for the most dangerous ingredients. This is a big problem because:

  • Many more chemicals are used that aren't as deadly but can still make you sick
  • Most haven't been fully tested for safety (for long-term, low-level, and multiple-exposures)
  • Some may be harmful to babies in the womb.
  • Some may be harmful to children at different stages of development.

Safer products are often available and should be used instead.

Organic Solvents

Avoid organic solvents, especially if you are pregnant – they can be dangerous to a developing foetus. Organic solvents may be responsible for causing birth defects and harming a foetus’s developing nervous system. Organic solvents evaporate at room temperature and you can easily smell them (for example, nail polish remover). Solvents are found in many common products like spot removers and other cleaners and disinfectants, in dry-cleaning chemicals, degreasers, aerosol sprays, cosmetics and paint strippers. They enter into the body through the skin, lungs and gut, and are spread to various body tissues, including the placenta. They are drawn to fatty tissues, including breast milk.

Dry cleaning

Children can also be more sensitive to the chemicals used in dry cleaning. Ask yourself if dry cleaning is really necessary for certain clothes and household items. If it is necessary, find a service that uses non-toxic methods. Ask your dry cleaner about the chemicals they use. Don't use a drycleaner that uses perchloroethylene. If you're not sure about the chemical your drycleaner uses, hang all dry cleaned items outdoors or in a well-ventilated location for at least two hours before you store it indoors.

Avoid disinfection “overkill”

Many soaps and other cleaning products are marketed as “anti-bacterial.” Like “disinfecting” sprays, these products may contain pesticides that kill bacteria. Bacteria and disease transmission is a real threat in some situations such as in backed-up sewers or if you're cleaning up after handling raw meats (although very hot, soapy water and good kitchen hygiene works too), but over-using bacteria-killing products may interfere with the development of a child's healthy immune system.

Choose “green” or non-toxic cleaning products

“Green” or non-toxic cleaning products are widely available. Try to avoid cleaning products that have chlorine bleach or other chlorine-based chemicals. Chlorine is good for cleaning dirt and killing germs but it's also very toxic. Chlorine reacts with organic material and other chemicals and can create long-lived toxic chemicals that:

  • can pollute indoor air
  • stay on surfaces
  • are flushed into local waterways.

There are other effective cleaning products that use ingredients that come from natural sources and aren't chlorine-based. Information is also available for making your own non-toxic cleaning products.

Answer Author: 
Kathleen Cooper, Canadian Environmental Law Association (originally written for the no longer operational Canadian Health Network website)