Banishing Dirt and Germs Indoors May Be Safer and Easier Than You Think

Warning: cleaning a dirty house may be hazardous to your health. If you typically reach for the strongest cleanser you can find to stop the spread of flu and other contagious illnesses, you may want to consider recent findings by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The EPA has found that air inside the home may be more polluted than outdoor air, in part because of the toxins contained in common cleaning solutions. 

There is growing concern among experts and environmental advocates that the onset of some serious illnesses—including asthma, childhood cancer, ADHD, and birth defects—can be traced to exposure from toxins in products that are likely stored in your kitchen and bathroom cabinets. Many leave a chemical residue on surfaces, and release fumes that can irritate the eyes, nose, and lungs. Young children are especially vulnerable since their internal organs, respiratory, and immune systems aren't fully developed. Plus their natural curiosity leads them to mouth toys and other household items that were possibly sanitized with harmful chemicals by well-meaning parents.  

But it takes a little detective work to uncover the chemical components of popular cleaning products since—unlike the food industry-manufacturers are not required by the federal government to list product ingredients. Established in 1993, the Environmental Working Group (, a non-profit organization that seeks to "protect public health and the environment," along with other watchdog groups, claim the current federal chemical law is failing and needs reform. The current law—the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA)—was passed in 1976 and has never been amended.

The law, according to the EWG, is widely regarded as the weakest of all major environmental laws that exist today. The Act declared some 62,000 chemicals already on the market safe at the time, though little or no data was collected to support this assumption. Since that time, another 20,000 chemicals have been put into commerce in the United States, also with little or no evidence of safety. (For more information about the requirements of the law as it applies to chemicals, visit:

Chemicals such as denatured ethanol, alkyl dimethyl benzyl and ammonium chloride (both pesticides), propane, and glycol ethers can be found in furniture polish, glass cleaner, and disinfectant spray. Critics of the advocacy groups point out that while these chemicals can be dangerous in large and highly-concentrated quantities, miniscule and highly-diluted amounts of them are added to cleaning products rendering them safe. Additionally, proponents argue that chemicals are not only more effective, but often more affordable cleaning agents than their "green" counterparts. Of course, personal cleanliness standards vary.

It's So Easy Cleaning Green

So, if the words "fatal if swallowed" on a product label give you pause, try cleaning with baking soda, vinegar, and/or lemon juice. Here, some do-it-yourself ideas.

  • Use straight vinegar on tough bathroom stains.
  • Clean porcelain surfaces with a paste made from vinegar and baking soda.
  • Vinegar and water can be used to remove dirt and grime from windows.
  • Borax-a laundry booster-is safe and has many uses beyond the washing machine, including killing mold and bacteria.

In the meantime, play it safe by reading labels and steer clear of items that contain any type of warning such as: "caution," "dangerous," or "poison." And if the do-it-yourself option doesn't do it for you, be willing to spend more on green cleaning products that contain safer ingredients. Going green doesn't necessarily mean sacrificing high standards of cleanliness. But you just may have to clean up your act to make smart choices for your family.


American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP)

Thurston County Public Health Dept., Washington State

World Watch Institute