Unless you're a chemist, the labels on cleaning products can be confusing. Some innocuous-sounding ingredients, such as "fragrance," can actually be quite harmful, while vague phrases, such as "contains organic ingredients," could describe a truly environmentally healthful soap, or one that is highly toxic but to which a bit of organic herb has been added.
Consumer-advocacy groups maintain that many government-approved and unregulated chemicals found in popular home-care products are best avoided. Chief among these are volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which are released in gas form by many of the things we use in our homes, from paints and office equipment (such as printers and copiers) to craft materials (like glues and permanent markers) and cleaning products. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), VOCs are usually found at higher levels indoors than out, and can cause myriad problems, ranging from skin and eye irritation to cancer. The EPA recommends taking precautions with all VOCs (see list below).
When reading labels, remember that even plant-based products -- such as those with coconut, orange, or tea-tree oil-can cause breathing problems and irritate skin. The National Institutes of Health has a consumer database that lists many household products and what they contain (referenced by types of product, brand name, or manufacturer), but the information is taken from Material Safety Data Sheets provided by manufacturers, and can be incomplete or vague.
Some specific chemicals to be aware of:
Compressed inert gases that work to discharge the contents of aerosol containers. Aerosol propellants irritate the eyes and throat, and can aggravate asthma. Found in some air fresheners, oven cleaners, metal polish, furniture polish, carpet cleaners, and spray starch.
A poison that can irritate the eyes, skin, and respiratory system. Ammonia is extremely toxic when inhaled in concentrated vapors. It can cause chemical burns, cataracts, corneal damage, and possibly skin cancer. It also poisons plants, animals, and fish, and adds nitrogen to the environment. If a product containing ammonia is mixed with chlorine, toxic chlorine gas will result. Ammonia in window cleaners can loosen window putty and discolor aluminum frames. Found in some metal polish, furniture polish, tub/tile cleaners, toilet-bowl cleaners, floor cleaners, and window/glass cleaners.
Highly caustic and can burn the eyes and skin. Chlorine may cause reproductive, endocrine, and immune system disorders. If mixed with a product containing ammonia, toxic chlorine gas will result. A potent environmental pollutant, chlorine is a prime cause of atmospheric ozone loss and is listed in the 1990 Clean Air Act as a hazardous air pollutant. In the environment, it can create organochlorines. It also degrades synthetic and natural fibers. Found in some all-purpose cleaners, carpet cleaners, automatic dishwasher detergents (the chlorine can combine with hot water to produce dangerous fumes), laundry detergents, tub/tile cleaners, toilet-bowl cleaners, and bleach products.
A human carcinogen and respiratory irritant, formaldehyde can severely irritate or burn the skin, eyes, nose, mouth, and lungs. Exposure can lead to skin allergies, asthma attacks, and even pulmonary edema. Found in some air fresheners, metal polishes, tub/tile cleaners, fabric deodorizers, and spray starch.
May cause a host of problems, including allergies, watery eyes, headaches, skin irritation, lung problems, and neurotoxicity. The phthalates (see below) used as "carriers" are dangerous, too. Found in some air fresheners, carpet cleaners, dishwashing liquids, automatic dishwasher detergents, laundry detergents, fabric softeners/dryer sheets, and fabric deodorizers.
Solvents help other product ingredients work. Don't be misled by the word "organic" in this context -- it means "carbon-based." Many solvents are neurotoxins. Found in some all-purpose cleaners, metal polishes, and furniture wax/polishes.
Phosphates trigger allergies and irritate the eyes and skin. In the environment, phosphates can lead to serious overgrowth of algae in waterways: Algae blooms are hazardous to fish, plant life, and water quality, as they rob bodies of water of oxygen. Maryland and Virginia, among other states, plan to ban phosphates in dishwasher detergents as of 2010. Found in some automatic dishwasher detergents.
These enter the body through skin contact, inhalation, and ingestion, and have been linked to asthma and allergic symptoms in children, birth defects in male children, and reduced sperm count in adult males. Found in almost any cleaning product that contains the word "fragrance" (especially air fresheners), carpet cleaners, dishwashing liquids, automatic dishwasher detergents, laundry detergents, fabric softeners/dryer sheets, and fabric deodorizers.
Causes severe corrosive damage to the eyes, skin, mucous membranes, mouth, throat, esophagus, and stomach. Found in some oven cleaners, toilet-bowl cleaners, dishwashing liquids, automatic dishwasher detergents, laundry detergents, and drain cleaners.
These "foaming" agents help products clean more efficiently, but they can release carcinogens and reproductive toxins during manufacture, and some break down into compounds known to mimic estrogen and disrupt reproductive development. They are also slow to biodegrade. Found in some all-purpose cleaners, dishwashing liquids, and laundry detergents.