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The Safe Way to Clean Your House with Allergies, Asthma

Whiff of Trouble

Most of those cleaners also offer a fresh clean scent; but while that zesty lemon, pine or lavender aroma may do a great job of covering up last night’s tuna bake, the majority of fragrances are chemical cocktails, many of which contain hundreds of chemical compounds and can easily aggravate airways.

Since fragrance manufacturers are not required to disclose the chemicals they use – their formulations, some of which contain hundreds of chemicals, are considered trade secrets – there is usually no way to tell whether a product contains a particular trigger. To boot, fragrances are built to linger, and since they are in everything from fabric softeners to air fresheners, the odds of those harmful secondary fumes are not insignificant.

But fragrances aren’t the only compounds that do more harm than good when it comes to cleaning agents, according to Bello, glycol ethers – which are used as solvents in many cleaning products – have been linked with both respiratory irritation and cancer.

Coming Clean

So you want to do what’s best for your and your family’s health – but your abode is still crying out for that big clean. What products should you use, and which ones should you leave on the shelf?

As Bello points out, labeling on most cleaning products is at best incomplete and products can contain dozens of compounds. So unless you hold a chemistry degree, trying to identify the chemical contents of any given product is next to impossible. As a result, she advises that consumers opt for products that are certified “green” by a recognized organization or government body, such as the ones bearing the Environmental Protection Agency’s Design for the Environment label. (See: http://www.epa.gov/dfe/)

There are other strategies you can try: steer clear of disinfectants unless absolutely necessary, avoid spray products whenever possible to reduce the chance of inhaling chemicals, stay away from products containing quaternary ammonium compounds (“quats”), and opt for natural cleaners such as plain soap and water, vinegar and baking soda. With some old-fashioned elbow grease, they can tackle most jobs.

Even Bello still uses a chemical glass cleaner on occasion, but the results of her research have convinced her to go almost entirely chemical-free. “Before I was so driven by their performance, but that has completely changed,” says the researcher, who grew up in Albania without chemical cleaning products, and marveled at them when they first arrived in her country. “Now I am aware that any chemical we can avoid using will be for our benefit.”

Tips On A Green Clean

• Use natural cleaners such as soap, vinegar and water wherever possible; if you must use a chemical product, choose one that is certified green by a reputable organization such as the EPA’s Design for the Environment program (epa.gov/dfe). In Canada, there’s the EcoLogo program (ecologo.org), which also provides recommendations for safer cleaners on their website.

• Never use more of a cleaning product than you need.

• Never mix cleaning products, as this can create dangerous compounds. For example, if mixed, products containing bleach and ammonia can create hazardous fumes.

• Follow manufacturer’s instructions, and wear protective masks and gloves when recommended.

• Always allow adequate ventilation.

• Be aware that smell and toxicity are not linked; just because a product doesn’t have much of a smell doesn’t mean it’s safe.

• Opt for products that are fragrance-free, and avoid air fresheners.

• Don’t put particles in the air that will aggravate your condition. Use vacuums with HEPA filters and dust with a damp cloth. Wear a mask if necessary, and have someone else tackle the jobs more likely to cause irritation.

• Don’t create more problems. Water left to pool after mopping can cause mold to grow.

Sources: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency; Dr. Susan Tarlo; Anila Bello, CMHC.

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