Death By Household Cleaners

Winter is finally over, so say hello to what hopes to be a promising summer full of sunshine and warm weather. Time to wipe down the walls and scrub the floors, refreshing the air we breathe.

But wait… did you know those household cleaners contain toxic chemicals that could lead to serious health concerns including asthma, hormone imbalances, rashes, neurotoxicity, obesity, and even cancer? Say what?

Believe me, I’m all for having a clean, nice smelling home. But there are ways to have a spotless space, enough to impress your guests, without the risks.

In this article, I’ll discuss exactly what these chemicals are and how they can be avoided to maintain your health.

Federal Regulations on Cleaning Products

Safety regulations here in the United States are far behind many other countries. We allow over 84,000 chemicals to be used in our cleaning products, cosmetics, and food every day. Sadly, the majority of these chemicals have never been tested for safety.

To make matters worse, household cleaners are NOT required to list all of these harmful chemicals on their labels under the Federal Hazardous Substance Act. The reason for this is very simple . . . money. Companies are afraid to list the innermost details of their product to protect it from duplication.

As a result of this lack of transparency, the typical American is in contact with over 6,000 chemicals and an untold number of substance reactions in their lifetime.1

The Great Disinfectant

In the early 19th century, Joseph Lister – an English surgeon – found that when surgical dressings were soaked with carbolic acid, the incidence of post-surgery infection decreased drastically.2 This spiked the widespread use of disinfectants in hospitals, a necessary practice in operating rooms today. However, this level of cleanliness doesn’t have a place in our homes.

Washing your hands too frequently and using high-grade disinfectants can actually harm the body by washing away the beneficial bacteria required to fight infections and illness. Too sterile of an environment can predispose children to a higher risk of allergies and asthma.

The “hygiene hypothesis” teaches us that there is such a thing as being too clean. The rates of allergies and immune system diseases have quadrupled over the past few decades2 because our bodies can’t fight off pathogens properly. These antibiotic resistant “superbugs” are absolutely on the rise and can cause rampant disease and even death.

The substance found by Dr. Lister is still used today and commonly found in products you probably use on a daily basis. Why is this important to point out? Because carbolic acid/phenol has been linked to damaged respiratory and circulatory systems, decreased reproductive function, and damaged kidneys, liver, and eyes.2 Versions of this have been banned in Europe because as it biodegrades, it becomes more toxic with time.

Chemical Cocktails

In 2009, over 1.5 million Americans were diagnosed with some type of cancer. One in five cancers are caused by exposure to chemicals.5

When chemicals come in contact with the human body, they cause genome instability, damaging the cellular wall and enhancing the cell’s ability to mutate and replicate.6

In a recent study, researchers evaluated 100 chemicals women were in frequent contact with and sorted them into categories related to their harmful potential. The study resulted in 17 chemical groups that were flagged as “high priority” due to their ability to produce mammary tumors.6 In a different study of 800 women – half with cancer and half without –  researchers found that those with cancer had a higher use of air fresheners and cleaning products.7

In addition to cancer, toxic chemicals are also linked to obesity. These chemicals – found in carpeting, cushions, fabrics, and dust – attack peroxisomal proliferation activator receptor (pre-fat cells). These PPAR Gamma agonists bind to and activate PPAR Gamma cells which regulate fat metabolism, cell proliferation, and cell death.

Research in Environmental Science and Technology revealed that 28 of 30 semi-volatile compounds found in indoor dust were PPAR agonists.5


The term “fragrance” is virtually unregulated by the FDA or EPA. Fragrance can be loaded with synthetic chemicals linked to cancer, reproductive toxicity, allergies and many more health issues.3 Within the umbrella of the term, companies use phthalates, a synthetic preservative, to increase the shelf life of products. These preservatives are linked to infertility and are known to decrease sperm counts.

A recent study found that 20% of the general population is sensitive to at least one allergen, most commonly identified as substances in “fragrance.”3 One Swiss study found that the use of air fresheners four to seven days a week were associated with decreased heart rate variability or autonomic heart dysfunction.5 These products are also linked to headaches, earaches, or diarrhea common in young children.

96% of shampoos, 98% of conditioners, and 97% of styling products contain harmful fragrances4

Galaxolide is one chemical that is commonly found in surface cleaners, detergents, air fresheners, and cosmetics. When tested, it received a Benchmark 1 from Green Screen, meaning it is a product that should be used with caution.

Chemicals like galaxolide don’t break down in the environment and are extremely toxic to our fish and aquatic life. They interfere with hormones, the brain, and metabolic pathways in our body, not to mention the reproduction/development of fish.

We then eat the fish loaded with galaxolide, and voila: we see an accumulation of harmful toxins in our body. One study found that in 91% of the people tested had galaxolide in their plasma and 97% in their breast milk.4 Yikes!


The products we use enter our bodies in many ways, especially through the air we inhale or skin from direct contact. Inhalant exposure poses a significant risk to our lung/respiratory system. A 2009 study measured asthma symptoms and found they were significantly worse after completing household tasks.5

In the United States, the incidence of asthma is up from 7.3% in 2001 to 8.4% in 2010. Now 1 in 10 children, or over 9 million, have asthma.

The Environmental Working Group (EWG) assessment of 2,000 cleaning products found that 438 contained at least one chemical identified as an asthmagen, most emitting some form of formaldehyde.

With an increase in the rates of asthma attacks, the costs have skyrocketed, too. In 2007, we spent over $37 billion on ER visits for asthma symptoms.


Despite many health concerns, the danger of our cleaning products is very much hidden from us, thus harming the American consumer. Government agencies have found considerable data to suggest that some chemicals could cause cancer, yet inadequately report these chemicals to the general public.

Formaldehyde has been deemed by the U.S. government and World Health Organization as a known carcinogen and yet it remains an active ingredient in our cleaners. Unfortunately, some companies don’t list it as its real name, disguising it by adding preservatives like Bronopol or 1,4 dioxane that release formaldehyde to kill bacteria and extend shelf life.5 How can you tell if your product has formaldehyde? Most contain citrus or pine fragrance.

Formaldehyde compounds may be unintentionally formed during the manufacturing process from polyethylene products, thus again stressing the importance of how these chemicals act upon each other. Animal studies show increased rates of liver tumors with increased exposure to these byproducts.5

Women who use a lot of cleaning products are found to be twice as likely to be diagnosed with breast cancer compared to women who don’t.5

More research is needed to accurately determine the link between these chemicals and cancer. How do the chemicals we know of react to each other? Do they themselves form compounds that could increase our risk for cancer? There are so many unanswered questions that we deserve to know in order to make the most informed decisions that best serve ourselves and our families.

Endocrine Disruptors

Endocrine disruptors are chemicals that mimic the hormones, turning them on and off, causing build up, and stimulating cell death. Take estrogen for example. Some household cleaners can cause your hormones to become unbalanced, increasing the concentration of estrogen, making you retain water and body fat. Some cancers are hormone sensitive, meaning if our balance can no longer be regulated and an accumulation of these stimulants is present, tumor size/aggressiveness could drastically be affected.

U.S. geological survey of American streams found 70% of samples contained at least one ingredient found in laundry detergent.1 Think about that: We’re drinking water possibly contaminated with detergents/cleaning products.

One of the most common endocrine disruptors is phthalates. These are referred to as “gender bending,” as they affect the reproductive/hormone balance in humans and aquatic life. Frequently found in deodorizers, detergents, fabric softeners, and fragrance in glass cleaners, phthalates have a profound effect on fertility and detrimentally affect genital development of baby boys.1 It’s no surprise that young women are getting their cycles earlier, menopause is starting on average 4-5 years earlier and infertility rates continue to rise.

Borax is a known endocrine disruptor that is added to laundry and dishwasher cleaners to ensure stabilization of the enzymes. In the European Union, they consider it extremely toxic to human reproductive systems, causing men to have low sperm counts and low libido, and women to have decreased fertility. It is also known to cross the placenta, causing skeletal abnormalities and low birth weight in fetuses.5

Diethylene glycol monomethyl ether (DEGME) is a chemical found in heavy duty cleaners banned by Europe due to fertility issues and poor development of fetuses causing low birth weight, birth defects and low IQ. This is commonly absorbed through skin contact and inhalation from the air.5


Okay, so we’ve covered a lot of reasons why we should pay attention to not only the substances we clean with but what we spray in our houses as well. These chemicals can affect hormone function and increase risk for cancer, but now let’s talk about how they affect our nervous system.

The nervous system is made up of the brain, spinal cord, sensory organs, and every nerve in the body. They should all communicate efficiently, sending signals and creating impulses to make the body function smoothly. Mess these signals up and guess what happens? Anarchy! It’s like turning off circuit breakers in your house – some rooms will get no electricity.

Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are known neurotoxins found in our air fresheners, aerosol sprays, and disinfectants emitted in the air.1 Not only are they toxic to our respiratory system, but they have serious effects on our nervous system, causing improper communication to all of the organs in the body. 2-butoxyethanol is found in over 108 products as an organic solvent or raw material used in order to produce phthalates. Seventy-five percent is absorbed through skin contact and can damage the central nervous system and lead to headaches, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, depression, and bone marrow depression. The Environmental Protection Agency considers it a known neurotoxin and carcinogen.8

What Now?

I urge you to avoid taking this article and presenting it to your significant other to say, “Kristen Sutherland told me cleaning was harmful to my health.”

This is not a hall pass to get out of chores. Sorry! It’s a resource to show you it is possible to maintain a clean household, smelling fresh without the exposure to harmful chemicals. There are many, easy-to-make solutions using very few, safe ingredients you can whip up at home in a matter of minutes. Not only will you know the ingredients going into your product, but you can use your favorite essential oil to fragrance it just the way you like.

Next time you reach under your sink for the cleaners, think twice about the harmful toxins you’re being exposed to. Your health and safety is worth a second look.

1 “The dirt on cleaning product companies”.
2 Mercola, J. “Why you want to avoid using chemical disinfectants”. October 2008.
3 “Secret Scents; How hidden fragrance allergens harm public health”.
4 “Galaxolide: A long-lasting fragrance contaminating the Great Lakes”.
5 “Cleaning supplies and your health”.
6 Mercola, J. “Why the U.S. doesn’t crack down on toxic chemicals”. December 2015
7 Mercola, J. “Are household cleaners linked to breast cancer?” August 2010
8 “Household cleaning products may do more harm than good”.

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