How Using 'Green' Cleaners Might Create a Toxic Storm

Analysis by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

household cleaners

Story at-a-glance -

  • New research reveals that using bleach as well as household cleaners containing limonene can pollute your indoor air, potentially harming the health of both humans and pets
  • The air particles these substances create — called secondary organic aerosols (SOAs) — can compromise lung function, exacerbating conditions such as asthma and heart disease
  • If you use chemical cleaning products in your home and are concerned about your family’s toxin exposure, consider switching to nontoxic, inexpensive alternatives such as vinegar, lemon juice, and baking soda

If like so many homeowners, you use both chlorine bleach and one of the thousands of household cleaners, including so-called green cleaners, containing limonene (a compound with a lemon, orange or pine scent) to sanitize and freshen up your home, you may be unknowingly creating a harmful indoor environment for both your two- and four-legged family members.

According to a recent study published by the American Chemical Society (ACS), researchers have discovered that bleach fumes combined with light and products containing limonene can form airborne particles that might be harmful when inhaled by pets or people.1

Bleach + Citrus Cleaners + Light = Significant Levels of Secondary Organic Aerosols Polluting the Air in Your Home

Cleaning products containing bleach off-gas (emit into the air) chlorine-containing compounds that can accumulate at relatively high levels in inadequately ventilated indoor environments. These gases can react with other chemicals such as limonene, and both indoor lighting and sunlight through windows can enhance the reaction. The air pollutants that result have been linked to respiratory and other health problems.

For their study, the researchers set out to determine if limonene and bleach fumes, at concentrations likely to occur indoors, could react to produce air particles called secondary organic aerosols (SOAs) under light and dark conditions. From an ACS news release on the study:

"The researchers added limonene, HOCl and Cl2 [chlorine-containing compounds hypochlorous acid (HOCl) and chlorine gas (Cl2)], to air in an environmental chamber and then measured the reaction products using mass spectrometry. In the dark, limonene and HOCl/Cl2 quickly reacted to produce a variety of volatile compounds.

When the team turned on fluorescent lights or exposed the chamber to sunlight, these volatile compounds interacted with the light-generated hydroxyl radicals and chlorine atoms to form SOAs. Although the composition and possible health effects of these particles need to be studied further, they could be occupational hazards for people involved in cleaning activities, the researchers say."2

According to the research team, this is the first time anyone has analyzed the effect of limonene in combination with hypochlorous acid and chlorine gas under dark conditions, and they were able to demonstrate that the reaction off-gassed volatile compounds. However, perhaps more importantly, when indoor lights were turned on, the two compounds formed SOAs at significant levels, and exposure to sunlight increased the levels and sped up the reactions.

How SOAs Can Compromise Your Family's Health

SOAs are a major component in the tiny particles in the air that at high levels cause a smoggy haze and reduce visibility. As reported by CNN, "If small enough, these particles are able to travel deep into our lungs, causing short-term health effects such as eye, nose and throat irritation, coughing, sneezing and shortness of breath."3

The result is compromised lung function, which can severely affect people and pets with asthma and heart disease. When fine particle counts are high, there's a corresponding increase in emergency room visits, hospital admissions, and deaths. It's one of the reasons many cities issue health advisories when the air is expected to be at unhealthy levels.

Continued exposure to poor air quality is associated with chronic bronchitis and increased mortality from lung cancer and heart disease.

"In all cases," per CNN, "the researchers concluded the results could 'lead to negative health effects for indoor occupants,' especially anyone who spends a good deal of time cleaning, those who use industrial strength cleaning supplies, and children and the elderly."

I would also add family pets to this list, since they tend to spend a lot of time indoors and low to the ground, where particulate matter in the air ultimately settles.

Is Your Cleaning Routine Risking Your Pet's Health (or Yours)?

If you're a cleanliness-minded pet parent, you might not realize most commercial cleaning products pollute the air inside your home by off-gassing toxic fumes that can be very hazardous, not to mention irritating, to everyone in the household. And the more cleaning you do, the greater the buildup of toxins in the indoor air.

Common symptoms of irritation from cleaning product fumes include eye irritation and breathing problems.

If your dog licks the floor occasionally, he's ingesting small amounts of whatever floor cleaner you use. Your pets also walk around on the floor, lie on it, and lick their fur and paws, which is another way they can ingest cleaning chemicals.

Does your dog drink out of the toilet? Toilet bowl cleaners are among the most toxic for pets, especially the kind that clip to the edge of the toilet or sit in the tank, because their purpose is to deliver a constant level of chemicals to the toilet water. These caustic agents can burn your dog's mouth and throat, at a minimum.

Traditional cleaning agents can contain toxins such as bleach, ammonia, chlorine, phenol, isopropyl alcohol, and formaldehyde, all of which are potentially harmful to your pet. Symptoms of ingestion include vomiting, diarrhea, lethargy, seizures, coma, and in severe cases, death. If your pet gets a caustic substance on his body, it can cause a rash or a burn on his skin.

Many popular cleaners these days also contain antibacterial substances that are not only unnecessary but can actually help bacteria mutate and become resistant to killing agents.

Consider Switching to These Nontoxic, Inexpensive Household Cleaners

Replacing chemical household cleaners with a few simple, inexpensive, and nontoxic agents will lighten the toxic load of everyone under your roof, including your pet.

1. Bare floors — If you have wood, ceramic, linoleum, or vinyl flooring, you can use a vinegar and water solution instead of a chemical floor cleaner. Since pets are so low to the ground, this is an especially important tip. I recommend adding one cup of vinegar to one gallon of warm water to mop the floor.

There's no need to saturate the floor while mopping. Go easy and let the vinegar and water mixture do all the work. And there's really no need to rinse, but if you find the floor has a dull appearance after it dries, you can mop again with straight club soda to add a nice shine.

To remove stains on your vinyl floor, dip a clean cloth in full-strength lemon juice and rub it into the stain.

2. Windows and mirrors — You don't need ammonia-based products to clean windows and mirrors around your home. Instead, use a mixture of 4 tablespoons lemon juice and half a gallon of water.

Also consider using clean lint-free cloth rather than paper products to wipe surfaces clean. Sometimes old, cotton t-shirts or cloth diapers also work really well for windows and other glass surfaces.

3. Kitchens and bathrooms — For cleaning and disinfecting kitchen and bathroom surfaces, dust with baking soda, then wipe with a moist cloth or sponge. For tough grime, add some salt and scrub it away.

To tackle grease, mildew, or other stains, spray the area with either lemon juice or water. Let it sit for a few minutes, and then scrub with a stiff cleaning brush.

If you need to disinfect a surface, an effective homemade solution is a mixture of 2 cups water, 3 tablespoons of liquid soap, and about 25 drops of tea tree oil, which is naturally antibacterial and antifungal.

4. Polishing wood furniture — Most store-bought furniture polish contains petroleum products that are toxic. Furniture polish sprays pollute the air with potentially hazardous chemicals that everyone in your home breathes into their lungs, including four-legged family members.

Instead, try a mixture of olive oil and lemon juice. Use 2 parts olive oil to 1-part lemon juice. Apply it to your furniture with a soft cloth, and then do a final polish with a second clean cloth.

You can also use coconut oil on wood furniture, but this doesn't work so well if your pets love the stuff and follow you around like mine do, licking it off as fast as I put it on!

5. Unclogging a drain — If you have a sink or tub clogged with pet hair or other gunk, it's a good idea to avoid caustic chemicals and drain cleaners as much as possible. I recommend pouring half a cup of baking soda in the drain, followed by 2 cups of boiling water.

If you have a really tough clog, you can follow the baking soda with a half-cup of vinegar. Close or cover the drain tightly while the soda-vinegar mixture is bubbling up and breaking up the clog. Once the fizzing stops, flush the drain with a gallon of boiling water.

This is by no means a complete list of all the ways you can reduce or even eliminate the chemical cleaners in your home, but it's an excellent start. You can learn more about some of my homemade recipes in this Facebook video.