According to a new study released in this month’s issue of Pediatrics, almost 12,000 children five and under are treated in hospital emergency rooms in the US each year because of household cleaning products. About 40% of those cases are caused by chemicals found in spray bottles, which rarely have safe child-resistant caps. What’s worse is that 740 children who were injured by cleaning products suffered long-term disabilities or life-threatening symptoms.
While most spray nozzles can be turned to the “off” position, many parents don’t think about the potential hazards and leave them on. But keep in mind that particularly adept children can turn the nozzle on, even if it is off. Even a few drops of a poisonous chemical can have devastating consequences.
What’s in your typical household cleaner? After all, how bad can it be if you’re spraying your kitchen counter and refrigerator with it? The most common ingredient is chlorine bleach, which accounted for 37% of the poisoning injuries in the study. Ingesting bleach whether through household chemicals, chlorinated drinking water, or swimming in a chlorinated pool, has been linked to cancer of the esophagus, rectum, breast, and larynx and a higher incidence of Hodgkin’s disease.
But chlorine is hardly the only problem. You might be surprised to know that if your cleaning products claim to be antibacterial, you’re putting your family at even greater risk. Many cleaning products contain the disinfectant tricloslan, which has been linked to weakening of the immune system, birth defects, and interfering with brain development. Not only is it a potential hormone disrupter, there is concern that with exposure to sunlight or water, it can convert to dioxin, a carcinogen. Even the American Medical Association warns against its use.
What’s a parent to do? First of all, remember that all of these powerful cleansers may not be necessary — may, in fact, even be counterproductive when it comes to stopping the spread of disease. Surprise! Exposure to parasites, bacteria, and viruses early in life is precisely the type of stimulation that the young immune system needs so it can adapt and regulate itself. Without having this exposure, children face a greater chance of developing allergies, asthma, and other autoimmune diseases when they become adults.
Also, keep in mind that effective, safe alternatives do exist, including those made with extracts from thyme, oregano and other essential plant oils or other natural alternatives and are non-toxic. You can purchase a number of different brands of cleaner that are ecologically friendly and non-toxic in any large health food store, online, and in most large grocery stores. Brands to look for include Green Works (from the Clorox company no less), Seventh Generation, and Simple Green You still need to do your homework. That “safe” cleanser you’re buying may be labeled “safe” because it is in a recycled container, and not because the cleanser is safe for the environment, or for you for that matter.
Another option is to make your own household cleaners. Remember to keep them out of reach, and well-labeled. Lemon, baking soda, soap flakes, and white vinegar are all accessible, inexpensive ingredients that can be used to make a handful of different cleaners perfect for your home.
The bottom line is that you do need some cleaning products, but whatever you use does need to be kept out of the reach of young children and safely secured. And if at all possible, use non-toxic — especially if there are children in the house. If the product is non-toxic, at least if your child accidentally ingests some, it shouldn’t be a crisis.