EPA's advice and practical information on household cleaning products

Published: Friday, Sept. 21 2012 12:00 p.m. MDT

FILE-  This Wednesday, April 1, 2009 file photo shows Wendy Brooks as she cleans her windows with white vinegar and newspapers at her home in Phoenix. (Associated Press) FILE- This Wednesday, April 1, 2009 file photo shows Wendy Brooks as she cleans her windows with white vinegar and newspapers at her home in Phoenix. (Associated Press)

Source: Environmental Protection Agency


Cleaning products are necessary for maintaining attractive and healthful conditions in the home and workplace. In addition to the obvious aesthetic benefits of cleaning, the removal of dust, allergens and infectious agents is crucial to maintaining a healthful indoor environment.

But cleaning products can present several health and environmental concerns. They may contain chemicals associated with eye, skin or respiratory irritation, or other human health issues. Additionally, the concentrated forms of some commercial cleaning products are classified as hazardous, creating potential handling, storage and disposal issues for users.

Reducing the human health and environmental concerns is an important incentive for implementing an environmentally preferable purchasing program for cleaning products. Many of the recommendations in the guide are based on the fundamental pollution prevention principles of reducing the quantity and hazards of materials used.

The purpose of the guide is to provide practical information that will assist federal purchasers in making purchasing decisions. The guide is not a risk assessment document nor is it intended to substitute for material safety data sheets, labels or similar documents that provide information on proper storage, handling, use and disposal.

More comprehensive information on cleaning processes and practices is available from a variety of sources, a number of which are listed in the "Contacts and Resources" section of the guide.

Why green your cleaning products?

NOTE: The following discussion primarily addresses hazards associated with cleaning product ingredients. The actual risks from these chemicals at typical exposure levels are often uncertain and, in many cases, probably low. Regardless of the expected risk levels, however, reducing the intrinsic hazard of a product is a desirable pollution prevention objective as part of decisions that also take into account other important product attributes.

Cleaning products are released to the environment during normal use through evaporation of volatile components and rinsing down the drain of residual product from cleaned surfaces, sponges, etc. Janitorial staff and others who perform cleaning can be exposed to concentrated cleaning products. However, proper training and use of a chemical management system (a set of formal procedures to ensure proper storage, handling and use) can greatly minimize or prevent exposure to concentrated cleaning product during handling and use.

Certain ingredients in cleaning products can present hazard concerns to exposed populations (such as skin and eye irritation in workers) or toxicity to aquatic species in waters receiving inadequately treated wastes. (Standard sewage treatment effectively reduces or removes most cleaning product constituents). For example, alkylphenol ethoxylates, a common surfactant ingredient in cleaners, have been shown in laboratory studies to function as an "endocrine disrupter," causing adverse reproductive effects of the types seen in wildlife exposed to polluted waters.

Ingredients containing phosphorus or nitrogen can contribute to nutrient-loading in water bodies, leading to adverse effects on water quality. These contributions, however, are typically small compared with other point and nonpoint sources.

Volatile organic compounds in cleaning products can affect indoor air quality and also contribute to smog formation in outdoor air.

Magnitude of potential exposure

The cleaning industry employs about 2.8 million potentially exposed janitors. In addition to these professional janitorial staff, who can be assumed to use cleaning products daily, many other building occupants perform light cleaning on a routine or occasional basis, such as dusting, wiping off desks and counters, etc. All building occupants are potentially exposed to the volatile components of cleaning products.

Data show that about 6 percent of janitors experience a job-related injury from chemical exposure to cleaning products every year.

Benefits of buying green

Choosing less hazardous products that have positive environmental attributes (such as biodegradability, low toxicity, low volatile organic compound content, reduced packaging, low life cycle energy use) and taking steps to reduce exposure can minimize harmful impacts to custodial workers and building occupants, improve indoor air quality, and reduce water and ambient air pollution while also ensuring the effectiveness of cleaning in removing biological and other contaminants from the building's interior.

Buying cleaners in concentrates with appropriate handling safeguards and reusable, reduced or recyclable packaging, reduces packaging waste and transportation energy. Buying less hazardous cleaners may reduce costs when it comes time to properly dispose of any leftover cleaners.

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