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Common household cleaning products release hundreds of toxic chemicals

A disturbing study published today in the scientific journal Chemosphere has shed light on the potential health hazards posed by common household cleaning products.

Conducted by scientists from the Environmental Working Group (EWG), the study analyzed 30 different cleaning products and found them to emit hundreds of hazardous volatile organic compounds (VOCs).

Key findings on VOCs

  • The study examined a range of cleaning products, including multipurpose cleaners, glass cleaners, air fresheners, and more.
  • A staggering 530 unique VOCs were detected across the 30 products. Alarmingly, 193 of these VOCs were identified as hazardous, with potential health risks including respiratory damage, increased cancer risk, and developmental and reproductive impacts.
  • VOC emissions from cleaning products are particularly concerning for indoor air quality. They were found to contaminate indoor air two to five times more than outdoor air. Some estimates even suggest the difference could be as much as tenfold. Moreover, certain products continue to emit VOCs for extended periods, ranging from days to months.

Alexis Temkin, Ph.D., a senior toxicologist at EWG, warned, “This study is a wake-up call for consumers, researchers, and regulators to be more aware of the potential risks associated with the numerous chemicals entering our indoor air.”

Green products vs. conventional products

Encouragingly, the research showed that products labeled “green” emitted significantly fewer VOCs compared to their conventional counterparts — approximately half as many, on average.

Furthermore, when categorized as “fragrance free,” green products produced the least VOC emissions, about eight times fewer than conventional products and four times less than green products containing fragrance.

On average, green products emitted only four hazardous chemicals, while green products with fragrance emitted about 15, and conventional products as many as 22.

Dr. Temkin also highlighted a potential solution for consumers, “Our findings emphasize a way to reduce exposure to hazardous VOCs — by selecting products that are ‘green,’ especially those that are ‘green’ and ‘fragrance free.’”

Implications for health and environment

The adverse health effects of VOCs are deeply concerning given the exposure rates. Research indicates that individuals employed in the cleaning industry face a 50% higher risk of developing asthma and a 43% increased risk of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Women in this sector also experience a heightened risk of lung cancer.

Additionally, children’s health is jeopardized. Some research links higher use of certain indoor cleaners during pregnancy and infancy to an increased risk of asthma and wheezing in childhood.

The environmental impact of VOCs is equally worrying. Samara Geller, EWG senior director of cleaning science, highlighted that VOCs from consumer products can exacerbate outdoor air pollution. A 2018 study estimated that consumer products were the source of half of the VOCs contributing to air pollution.

Geller concluded, “Going green with your cleaning products is an easy way to reduce exposure to harmful chemicals. This may be especially important for women’s and children’s health.”

This important research emphasizes the importance of making informed choices about household cleaning products, not just for individual health, but also for the well-being of the planet.

More about VOCs

Volatile Organic Compounds, commonly known as VOCs and discussed above, permeate our environment. They are essential to understand due to their significant impact on human health and the planet. Let’s now dive deep into what VOCs are, where you find them, and the effects they can have.

What are VOCs?

VOCs stand for Volatile Organic Compounds. They are a group of carbon-based chemicals that easily evaporate at room temperature. Due to their volatile nature, they can become a primary component of indoor and outdoor air pollution.

Common sources

Every day, you encounter products and materials that release VOCs. Some of these sources include:

  • Household Products: Paints, varnishes, and cleaning agents often contain VOCs. When you open a can of paint or use a cleaning agent, you release these compounds into the air.
  • Automobiles: Car exhaust emits a significant number of VOCs.
  • Industrial Processes: Factories that produce goods, ranging from plastics to clothing, often release VOCs as a byproduct.
  • Building Materials: Many construction materials, such as adhesives, wood preservatives, and even some carpets, give off VOCs.

Health impacts of VOCs

Exposure to VOCs can lead to a range of health issues, including:

  • Short-term effects: These can range from eye, nose, and throat irritation to headaches, dizziness, and fatigue.
  • Long-term effects: Chronic exposure can lead to liver, kidney, and central nervous system damage. Some VOCs, like benzene and formaldehyde, are even potential carcinogens.

Environmental effects

Apart from human health, VOCs also affect the environment:

  • Ozone Formation: When VOCs mix with nitrogen oxides in the presence of sunlight, they form ground-level ozone. This is a primary component of smog, and it can be harmful to both human health and vegetation.
  • Contribution to Climate Change: Some VOCs are greenhouse gases, which means they trap heat in the Earth’s atmosphere, leading to global warming.

Reducing exposure to VOCs

To minimize the risks associated with VOCs, consider the following steps:

  • Ventilation: Ensure good ventilation when using products that emit VOCs. This can help dilute the concentration of VOCs in the air.
  • Read Labels: Check products for VOC content and opt for low-VOC or VOC-free options when available.
  • Limit Use: Use VOC-emitting products sparingly and follow the manufacturer’s instructions to the letter.
  • Safe Storage: Store products that contain VOCs in well-sealed containers to prevent unnecessary evaporation.

VOC regulations

Many governments recognize the threats posed by VOCs and have introduced regulations to limit their emissions. These often include setting limits for VOC content in products, establishing air quality standards, and requiring industries to adopt best practices to minimize VOC emissions.

In summary, VOCs, while ubiquitous in our modern environment, can pose significant health and environmental challenges. By understanding what they are and where they come from, and by taking proactive steps to reduce exposure, we can protect both our health and the environment. It’s up to both individuals and industries to play their part in ensuring a safer, VOC-reduced world.

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