woman mother toddler baby Be it at home or at nursery school, both parents and childcare providers struggle to win the infectious disease battle—or at least declare a truce—through regular use of powerful cleaning and disinfecting agents. But while these cleaners may protect your child by defeating the germ bugs, they may also pose a few potential health risks due to the sometimes toxic ingredients they contain. And while you can’t control the toxins that permeate public facilities, you do have a say in the how you choose to keep your own home.

Potential Health Risks of Common Cleaners

Keeping a clean house is a necessary step in providing a safe living environment. Through proper cleaning and disinfection in the kitchen, for example, contact with disease-causing bacteria from raw or undercooked meat, shellfish, fish, and eggs can be reduced. But the products we use to clean the house can also have unintended health consequences.

Most of the research regarding the health risks of cleaning products has focused on adult janitorial staff working with industrial cleaners in settings outside of the home. These workers are known to suffer from high rates of permanent eye damage, scleroderma , major organ damage, and even cancer attributed to frequent exposure to powerful, concentrated cleaning products. While household cleaners tend to be more diluted and less potent than their industrial-strength counterparts, many do contain some of the same potentially harmful ingredients. And while both children and adults are susceptible to the consequences of toxic chemical exposure, children are more susceptible because of their rapidly growing bodies and immature immune systems.

Based on the research mentioned above, of particular concern are cleaners that containing the following:

  • Ammonia
  • Aerosol propellants
  • Chlorine bleach
  • Hydrochloric acid
  • Hydrofluoric acid
  • Isopropyl alcohol
  • Paradichlorobenzenes (PDCBs)
  • Petroleum distillates
  • Phenols
  • Trichloroethylene (TCE)

These compounds can be found in floor and carpet cleaners, degreasers, toilet/tub/tile cleaners, room deodorizers, oven cleaners, furniture polishes and waxes, and disinfectants.


“There are certainly triggers to asthma in some of our household cleaning agents,” says Carol LeBlanc, PhD, of the Toxics Use Reduction Institute at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell.

For example, research shows that a group of chemicals called volatile organic compounds (VOCs)—several of which are found as ingredients in the more powerful household cleaners, such as oven and rug cleaners—are known to increase asthma rates in children. Among other compounds, VOCs include:

  • Nitrobenzene
  • Toluene
  • Methylene
  • Chloride
  • Formaldehyde
  • Ethylene glycol

Because of concern over the increasing incidence of asthma among children, several states are taking action to mandate the use of safer cleaners in schools. New York and Massachusetts are two such states that have passed legislation or have bills pending.

Chronic Endocrine Disruptors

“To me, the chronic exposures are a huge problem because the child does not become obviously sick right away,” says LeBlanc, yet these conditions can be serious. For example, some cleaning products contain chemicals believed to be “endocrine disruptors”—in other words, hormone mimickers. Over time, endocrine disruptors may affect the development and function of the body's organs and hormonal systems. And like any toxin, they may be particularly harmful for developing fetuses, infants, and young children.

In cleaning products, the endocrine disruptors of greatest concern are the nonyl- and octyl-phenols used to make alkylphenol ethoxylate (APE) detergents. APE detergents are, in turn, widely added to liquid laundry detergents, disinfecting cleaners, all-purpose cleaners, and laundry stain removers in order to boost their “dirt-lifting” effectiveness. However, APEs are known in the industry to persist as long-term environmental pollutants. Some manufacturers are even taking steps to remove them from their products. Knowing this, it’s not surprising that APE detergents may linger in household air long after the wash is done. In fact, a recent study of 120 U.S. homes found the presence of 4-nonylphenol, a common detergent additive, in the air of every home tested.

What Can You Do?

The good news is that safer cleaning products are available, and you can also employ safer cleaning techniques to protect yourself, your family, even your pets. To start, be sure to read all labels well. Do not assume a green bottle labeled “natural” is toxin-free. Also consider the following pointers to avoid purchasing toxic cleaners:

  • Do not use APE-containing cleaners.
  • Consider products with:
    • Citrus or plant-based oils: orange and lemon for degreasing, tea tree and eucalyptus for disinfecting, and olive for polishing
    • Enzymes to break up drain clogs
  • Choose products that list ALL of their ingredients.
  • Make your own cleaning products from non-toxic ingredients such as baking soda, club soda, and vinegar.
  • Focus on cleaning; disinfect only when necessary. “If you clean well, you have to do far less disinfecting,” according to Dr. LeBlanc. “The goal is not to completely abandon disinfectants but use them wisely and judiciously.”
  • Do not use chemical carpet cleaners.
  • Use chlorine bleach sparingly. Consider using fragrance-free, non-chlorine bleaches containing hydrogen peroxide instead.
  • Choose unscented cleaning products. Sometimes fragrances are added to mask the smell of toxic cleaners; furthermore, fragrances themselves can trigger allergic reactions and asthma attacks.
  • Be wary of concentrated cleaners that advertise safety only when used under certain conditions.
  • Avoid cleaners carrying a ‘danger’ or ‘warning’ label.

Manufacturers of cleaning products are required to prepare a Material Safety Data Sheet containing information about a product’s health, fire, reactivity, and specific hazards, from a score of 0 (minimum) to 4 (severe) in each category. For household cleaning products, avoid any product with a score higher than 2 in any category. Note, however, that this ranking system is not required to be on the label. Visit the NIH Household Products Database ( http://hpd.nlm.nih.gov/index.htm ) to search for this and other helpful information on household cleaners.