Green Cleaning Products: Why Bother?

October 18th, 2010 | Posted by tjones in Air Quality | Environment | Green Homes | Green Products | Living Green | Nature

Check the back of nearly any conventional cleaning product, and you are confronted with an entire paragraph of confusing words for unknown chemicals – sometimes, hundreds of them.  It would take a huge amount of research to know which of those chemicals could be harmful to you, your family, or the environment.

Using conventional cleaning products in small amounts, and in well-ventilated areas, likely won’t cause any harm to the individual.  However, when we clean our homes we typically use a whole range of products for specific purposes – glass cleaners, countertop cleaners, floor cleaners, shower cleaners… the list goes on.  The more chemicals we use in our homes, the more exposure we receive to them, and that can add up over time, week in and week out.

Many conventional cleaners contain volatile organic compounds, or VOCs.  We’ve written before about VOCs in paint.  VOCs are the source of the headache-inducing chemical smell that is produced when using a cleaner at home.  These chemical compounds are used to cheaply improve the performance of a product, but can have serious consequences for human health – they have been linked to neurological disorders and kidney failure in laboratory animals, just to name a few consequences.  VOCs linger in the residue of cleaning products, even when they’re not visible – they continued to be inhaled even after cleaning is finished.  As Grist reports, home air fresheners contain significant amounts of VOCs and have been linked to a 25% increase in headaches and 19% more occurrences of depression in homes where they are used, versus homes where they are not.

Even smaller amounts of cleaner can have detrimental effects on the environment.  Dishwashing detergents often contain phosphates, which soften water and are a cheap way to make dish detergents more effective.   But the environmental cost is substantial.  When phosphates enter the watershed they enrich the water with nutrients that algae feed on, producing huge “blooms” of algae that consume all oxygen in the surrounding water.  Water that is depleted of oxygen – or that is hypoxic – is uninhabitable by most marine life.  The consequence is huge “dead zones” where there is no sea life, apart from algal blooms.  One of the largest and most infamous dead zone is in the Gulf of Mexico, which is fed by nitrogen and phosphorus runoff from the Mississippi River.  While that dead zone is fed largely by agricultural runoff, home fertilizers – and home cleaners – also contribute.

this graphic, from the new york times, depicts the hypoxic zone in the gulf of mexico -- a phenomenon produced, in part, by the runoff of phosphates, often found in conventional cleaners

There are more environmental consequences than hypoxia: conventional cleaners use chemicals that can disrupt the endocrine systems of marine life; some chemicals can affect the alkalinity of water, harming marine organisms; and others contain chemical compounds such as DDBSA that are corrosive to metal and organic tissue, including human tissue.  If cleaning chemicals can produce these harmful effects on marine life, are they products that the consumer wants in their home – that not only release the chemicals into the home environment when they are use (and inhaled!), but linger and offgas for indeterminate amounts of time?

For the sake of personal health and the environment, then, it becomes imperative to use green cleaning products, and other green products that are free of the kinds of pollutants and toxins which poison our bodies and land.

Fortunately, numerous alternatives are available.  Some are more effective – both in terms of cleaning power and in healthfulness – than others.  Some, in particular, are pure greenwash – while they profess to be “all-natural,” they are indeed chemical and potentially dangerous.  There are no federal criteria to regulate products advertized as “all-natural” and packaging can therefore be terrifically misleading.  Some “all-natural” cleaners are made from petroleum-derived products – all-natural because petroleum is naturally-occurring.

So, we should choose green cleaners because they are kinder on our health, our homes, and our environment.  And we should ensure we choose green products that are legitimately green, and not just greenwash.  There are, fortunately, truly ecologically-sound alternatives available to the consumer.

These products, contrasted to their conventional counterparts, are plant-derived, rather than petroleum-derived; they are biodegradable, meaning they won’t linger in waterways and contribute to hypoxia; and they are effective, meaning the consumer does not have to sacrifice performance for health and environmental benefits.

Green Depot carries a huge catalogue of green products, and produces its own line of green cleaners (locally-produced in the New York City area).  They are even refillable at our station on the Bowery – meaning you won’t even have to recycle your old bottles.

photo credit to flickr user hypoxia&eutrophication.

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