© 2024 KPCW

Spencer F. Eccles Broadcast Center
PO Box 1372 | 460 Swede Alley
Park City | UT | 84060
Office: (435) 649-9004 | Studio: (435) 655-8255

Music & Artist Inquiries: music@kpcw.org
News Tips & Press Releases: news@kpcw.org
Volunteer Opportunities
General Inquiries: info@kpcw.org
Listen Like a Local Park City & Heber City Summit & Wasatch counties, Utah
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Experts warn of household cleanser hidden dangers after pandemic

Bottles of toxic household chemicals with warning signs, scouring sponge and brush on floor indoors
Olga Yastremska, New Africa
A peek under the kitchen sink of many U.S. households will likely reveal a colorful assortment of cleansers, detergents and other products that claim to kill 99% of most household germs.

Sales of household cleansers aimed at fighting bacteria and viruses increased dramatically during the pandemic. But experts now say what people use to clean their homes may be doing more harm than good.

According to a recent report by the New York Times, consumer spending on cleaning products between 2019 and 2021 increased by 12%. Killing germs and viruses became of paramount importance as COVID-19 changed the way some people viewed cleanliness.

Coinciding with that rise were calls to poison control centers for accidental and intentional ingestion of household cleaning products. Of the more than 2 million calls in 2020 and 2021, roughly 8% were due to household cleanser exposure.

However, one doesn't need to ingest those products for them to be hazardous. Several studies published by the National Institutes of Health have linked ingredients in common household cleaning products to asthma, cancer, reproductive disorders, hormone disruption and neurotoxicity.

Dr. Brian Moench, board director of Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment, said these toxins aren’t just on surfaces, they’re in the air and likely in people’s bodies.

“If you're using a toxic substance, and you're using your hands, you're likely absorbing some of that into your own body, including ultimately probably into your bloodstream,” said Dr. Moench. “So that ought to spell some caution on how enthusiastic you are to use these kinds of things.”

The most common disinfecting household cleaning products contain chemicals known as quaternary ammonium compounds. These chemicals typically end in “ammonium chloride” and can be found in products like Lysol and Clorox sprays and wipes.

Studies have shown exposure to these compounds, commonly referred to as “quats,” is harming sperm quality, reducing fertility and resulting in birth defects in mice. Other research has shown people who work closely with those products, like nurses and janitors, have higher risks of asthma and C.O.P.D.

Dr. Moench, who is a new grandfather, is also concerned by recent studies that have found the chemicals in breast milk.

“It's disturbing to see studies that show that some of these quaternary ammonium compounds are found in the dust in people's homes and in their blood and even in breast milk,” said Moench.

Chlorine-based products, like bleach, are also commonly used in households as disinfectants. Bleach exposure can irritate eyes, mouths, lungs and skin. And if it’s mixed with ammonia, acids or other cleaners it can produce chlorine gas, which if inhaled can be deadly.

Dr. Moench said just because these cleaners are common doesn’t mean they’re not dangerous, and he believes they’re not really all that necessary.

“If somebody has a serious infection, like methicillin-resistant staph aureus, or MRSA, then that's a different situation. But for the average person in their home with average exposure to bacteria and viruses, most of these toxic chemicals used for cleaning, I think, really aren't necessary at all,” said Moench.

While most consumers want to know exactly what they’re wiping down or spraying around their home, finding that information on most cleaning product labels is difficult.

Cleansing products, unlike foods, are not required by federal law to carry a list of ingredients. Only compounds such as antimicrobials, which are listed by the EPA as a pesticide, are required on labels. The terms “natural,” "non-toxic,” and “green,” are unregulated by the Consumer Product Safety Commission and require no standardized ingredient information.

It’s largely buyer beware and Dr. Moench said what you don’t know can hurt you.

“There are a lot of neurotoxins, for instance, that people are exposed to that aren't necessarily going to dramatically alter people's lives, but who in their right mind would want their child's IQ shaved by even a couple of points just by the toxins that they brought into their home, that weren't necessary and wasn't helpful and a lot of people aren't even aware of,” said Moench.

Dr. Moench said people are better off cleaning their home with easily accessible and non-toxic ingredients like vinegar, baking soda and rubbing alcohol. And when washing hands, he said good old scrubbing for 20 seconds front and back does the trick.