Early, early in the morning, my husband wakes to watch Squawk on the Street, a program dedicated to the ups and downs of the New York Stock Exchange. If our baby has roused me at some particularly drowsy hour, I’ll pad quietly downstairs for a cup of half-caf and watch with him. When Chairman and CEO Don Knauss rang the Opening Bell with Sierra Club Executive Director Carl Pope this morning in honor of “Green Week,” I sat up and took notice.
Let me say first and foremost, I am an alternative cleanser zealot. Whenever I see a Clorox commercial for Formula 409 or those new disinfecting wipes, it stirs up my inner activist. Images of smiling moms wiping down toys and high-chairs with non-biodegradable cloths infused with a variety of carcinogens widely known to cause cancer and/or respiratory problems as a narrator suggests that to be a good mother, you must buy this product. What “good mother” do you know that would expose her child (and herself, her husband and pets) to toxic substances? Repeatedly? This is called chronic exposure. While our first concern is typically to eliminate germs and bacteria within the home for the health of our family, as my friend Becky Wheelock, a mother of three, points out: “our bodies are accustomed to almost all of the bacteria we come into contact with everyday. These harsh chemicals people buy at their closest grocer and slather their homes (and bodies!) with are really toxic. But since they ‘kill germs’, we believe our homes and children can be safe.” While it’s certainly true that the human body is accustomed to most common home bacteria, our bodies are not equipped to fight cancer-causing toxins. Consider the following:
- The EPA recommends “choosing less hazardous products that have positive environmental attributes (e.g., biodegradability, low toxicity and low volatile organic compound (VOC) content) and taking steps to reduce exposure can minimize harmful impacts to building occupants, improve indoor air quality, and reduce water and ambient air pollution.”
- The Cancer Prevention Coalition has named commonly used household products such as Professional Windex Concentrate Glass Cleaner ( S.C. Johnson Wax) and Ajax Oxygen Bleach Cleanser (Colgate-Palmolive Company) as cancer-causing products. According to an Australian study, exposure at a young age to certain chemicals in household cleaning products may increase the risk of developing asthma.
- The International Agency for Research on Cancer concluded that 80% of all cancer is attributable to environmental influences. These include lifestyle influences such as smoking, as well as exposure to carcinogenic chemicals found in everyday household cleaners.
- In a 15-year study in Oregon , women who didn’t work outside the home were determined to have a 54% higher death-rate from cancer as opposed to those who did. The study suggested that chronic exposure to cleaning products played a role. While most household cleansers have relatively small amounts of toxic ingredients, repeated exposure to these small amounts over several years of cleaning, scrubbing, dusting and polishing can accumulate to produce cancerous tumors, aggravate asthma symptoms and may prove dangerous to pets and small children who spend greater amounts of time in the home.
- According to the National Institutes of Health, many common household disinfectants contain phenols-caustic and dangerous compounds that have been shown to cause damage to respiratory and circulatory systems. The EPA lists disinfectants that contain phenols as “corrosive and toxic.” (Phenols are found in household detergents such as Lysol, Pine-Sol, Spic-n-Span, Baking Powder, Mouthwash and Sugar substitutes.)
While sales have been down for Clorox (CLX), the Fall 2007 acquisition of Burt’s Bees followed shortly thereafter by the introduction of Green Works keep the company’s fingers crossed; Clorox will post their earnings on May 1. But what about Green Works? (which include a general purpose cleaner, window cleaner, toilet bowl cleaner, dilutable cleaner and bathroom cleaner.) Is this the beginning of nationwide awareness of healthy house-cleaning? Let’s look at the pros and cons.
1.) Pro: Clorox has both the advertising dollar and nationwide market penetration to educate the public on alternatives to carcinogenic cleaning products, and offer product in markets without access to the smaller brands that suffer from limited distribution. The non-profit Sierra Club has given Green Works its stamp of approval; Carl Pope commented, “”We hope we are transforming the marketplace by doing this.”
2.) Con: None of us want to live with mold and muck (or Staphylococcus, Salmonella, and E.coli or viruses that cause colds and flu: Rhinovirus and Influenza A2), but Green Works isn’t a disinfectant, so it won’t get rid of those. To be a disinfectant, a product must be capable of removing 100% of bacteria, viruses and fungi, and this product isn’t quite there.
3.) Pro/Con: Price. Clorox Chairman and CEO Don Knauss said this morning that while Green Works doesn’t cost more to manufacture, it will be priced at a premium—a pro if your intention is to purchase the stock. However, considering that dozens of 100% natural cleaning brands are available (in limited markets) at the same cost as Formula 409, for many consumers, this is a con.
4.) Pro: Clorox claims that each one of the five cleaners is at least 99% natural. However, Collin Dunn at TreeHugger.com notes, “natural” is “the ubiquitous, unregulated ‘n’ word.”
5.) Con: The other 1%, however, is not “natural”. That 1% allows for ingredients like sodium lauryl sulfate and lauramine oxide to be present as well, according to Courtney Curtis: Your Guide to Green Living. jstevens.wordpress.com is also troubled by Clorox’s use of the unregulated word “natural,” commenting: “even if it was clearly defined, not everything that is natural is safe. Arsenic, lead, and mercury occur naturally. According to an article in the San Francisco Chronicle, [Clorox's] 1% of unnatural ingredients are derived from petrochemicals. Namely, the preservative Kathon, and the Milliken Liquitint Blue HP dye and Bright Yellow dye X. The dyes give several of the products a light green color. Not exactly necessary, in my opinion.”
6.) Con: Just how bad is that 1%? Clorox claims that the preservative, Kathon, will biodegrade within 28 days. According to the MSDS for Kathon, the substance by itself carries the following risks: “irritating to skin, risk of serious damage to eyes, may cause sensitization by skin contact, harmful to aquatic organisms, may cause long-term adverse effects in the aquatic environment.” Not exactly green.
I’ve purchased and used dozens of alternative cleansers over the years, and as a result have a small collection of tried-and-true products with plant-derived surfactents that really work and are safe for my family and cat. (And when my children get old enough to begin helping more around the house, I won’t think twice about handing over a sponge and bucket!) Click here for reviews of my favorites.