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A growing number of Americans are seeking so-called "green" cleaners — products made with natural, nontoxic, and biodegradable ingredients. Sales of natural cleaning products totaled $105 million in the last year. Some of these cleaners promise that they contain natural (instead of synthetic) agents, break down quickly in the environment, or pose less of a toxic threat to humans and ecosystems.

But critics caution that just because the ingredients in green cleaners are plant-based or natural doesn’t necessarily mean they’re safe.

Although green cleaners may purport to list all ingredients, the market is largely unregulated — which means consumers still must be wary of what’s in the bottle. Even cleaning products labeled “natural” may contain some fraction of synthetic chemicals. Or they may contain natural ingredients consumers would rather avoid, such as petroleum distillates, some of which can cause cancer. And just because a cleaning product is biodegradable and made from plant-based sources doesn’t mean that it is without potential adverse effects on health.

Plant-based ingredients included in some green cleaners include limonene (a citrus-based oil), pine oil, and the foaming agent coconut diethanolamide – all of which can cause allergic dermatitis. And a recent study of natural and nontoxic consumer products found the suspected cancer-causing chemical 1,4-dioxane in roughly half of 100 tested products — including several dish washing liquids with words such as “Earth friendly” and “eco” in their brand names.

Some natural cleaners still contain petroleum distillates such as benzene, or 1,4 dioxane, both of which can cause cancer, not to mention the fact that they come from a non-renewable resource (oil) which is, in and of itself, far from eco-friendly.

1,4 dioxane is also a suspected kidney toxicant, neurotoxicant and respiratory toxicant.

“According to a study by environmental health consumer advocate David Steinman and the Organic Consumer Association, all personal care and household cleaning products that carried the USDA Certified Organic Seal tested negative for 1,4-dioxane. Some additional major natural and organic brands, including Earth Friendly Products and Clorox Green Works, tested consistently free of 1,4-dioxane as well.”

All products tested from Earth Friendly Products, Clorox Green Works, and Dr. Bronner’s also tested free of 1,4-dioxane.

Other dangerous ingredients to look out for include:

  • Phosphates – cause algae proliferation in bodies of water, killing marine life
  • Nonylphenol ethoxylates – cause reproductive defects, liver and kidney damage
  • Phthalates – cause sperm damage and reproductive defects in boys
  • Volatile organic compounds, including 1,4-dichlorobenzene – cause nose and throat irritation, dizziness, asthma
  • Glycol ethers
  • Ammonia
  • Chlorine
  • Ethanolamines

Consumer advocates have pressed for stricter labeling rules, but the industry has resisted, arguing that long lists of ingredients would create a distraction on product labels, drawing attention away from important safety information.

For many home cleaning chores, you can avoid commercial products entirely by making your own cleaners. For a list of formulas for home cleaning applications which use safe ingredients commonly found in the home, click here.

Los Angeles Times April 28, 2008 Natural Health