I have just completed a course in which researchers from multiple universities in Europe clearly say that our immune systems develop according to our environment. In other words, our bodies adapt to the situation around us and react by producing the necessary bacteria and antibodies to keep us healthy. Their advice is that we should not over sterilise our environment if we want to stay healthy.
However, we all do still need to keep our homes reasonably clean, if not to the level of a hospital ward. But how safe are the cleaning products we buy at the supermarket? You might be surprised to hear that researchers in Norway have conducted studies that show that people exposed to spray cleaners in particular, increase their risk of lung damage similar to that of smoking a pack of 20 cigarettes a day! Yes, really.
The study on home cleaning products
The main author of the study is a Phd research candidate, Oistein Svanes, at the Department of Clinical Science at the University of Bergen, Norway. The study, which was recently published in the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine, followed a group of 6000 women over a period of 20 years, both cleaning at home or as a profession. Their aim was to see whether cleaning products including sprays and other cleaners, damage the lungs and impair their function. They found that regular use of cleaning chemicals accelerate lung decline over and above the normal rate of decline which naturally occurs with age.
In fact, cleaning your home as little as once a week over a period of 20 years led to significant lung damage. Professional cleaners were found to exhibit lung damage equivalent to that of smoking 20 cigarettes a day for 10 to 20 years.
What kind of damage occurs?
What has been found is that using chemical spray cleaners triggers immune system dysfunction, it can lead to inflammation in mucous membranes as well as creating damage to lungs at cell, structural and tissue level. According to a 2010 study focusing on asthma, household cleaners not only exacerbate existing conditions, but they can also be the cause. Asthma can be triggered by the use of spray cleaners, chlorine bleach and other common disinfectants. The American Contact Dermatitis Society also warns that dermatitis can also result by the use of these cleaners, and in 2013 they named Methylisothiazolinone (a common ingredient in cleaners) the contact allergen of the year. Not an awardee I’d personally wish to come into contact with!
Be careful what you mix!
Something that can also lead to even more harm is mixing chemicals at home. This can turn out to be extremely harmful and even deadly under the right circumstances. I remember an occasion many years ago that in trying to wash off a stain from a piece of clothing I mixed a couple of cleaning products just before setting off for work. I forget now what it was exactly, but I do remember my boss had to drive me back home from work a few hours later when I started experiencing debilitating dizziness and nausea for no apparent reason. I didn’t connect the two things until much later, but since then I have been very careful about what I mix. I really do not want to create a chemical reaction as a result of an amateur experiment at home and end up in the emergency room, or worse!
If, like me, you are not a chemical wizard, here are some examples of what combinations to avoid:
· Bleach + ammonia-based cleaners create Chloramine gas. Within 24 hours of inhaling this gas you might experience a runny nose, irritation of the eyes, nose, throat and airways, watering eyes, sore throat, coughing or congestion of the chest.
· Bleach + acid-based cleaners create Chlorine gas. Acid based cleaners are apparently harmless things like white vinegar, and are also present in oven cleaners, drain openers and toilet bowl cleaners. The effects of chlorine gas inhalation are more serious than those described above and will probably lead you straight into the ER.
Which ingredients should we look out for?
Household cleaners, whether for home or professional use, often contain bleach or ammonia, regulated toxic contaminants, Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs), terpenes and synthetic citrus fragrances which once in contact with the ozone in the air become formaldehyde and ultrafine particles which can easily get into your lungs and respiratory system. I’ll spare you the chemistry lesson, but suffice to note that none of the above are friends to your health.
Unfortunately, and especially depending on where you live and the regulations in place, not all ingredients need to be disclosed on the labels by manufacturers. So, what can you do?
How to protect yourself
As I mentioned in my blog post about skin health and chemicals, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) website is a rich source of information and a great place to check the safety ratings of products. They also recommend you use fewer products and avoid spray cleaners whenever possible. If you cannot do that, it might be advisable to spray them on a cloth first in order to reduce the amount of tiny particles and droplets that you breathe in. You could also use a microfiber cloth, with or without a little water, for dusting. I would also suggest you invest a little extra in some disposable masks, like the ones many Asian tourists wear against air pollution. Or, you can also go the more natural way.
Alternatives to chemical-laden cleaners
I have been cleaning for years using bicarbonate and white vinegar. Bicarbonate has many uses around the home, which would be the subject of more than one blog post in itself, and by just mixing it with a little water you can create a paste with multiple applications, from stain removal, to whitening.
White vinegar is in itself an antibacterial and cuts through grease easily. Add some white vinegar to warm water in a spray bottle and use it to clean mirrors, glass and even kitchen counters (check first that the vinegar doesn’t damage your counter!). I have been using this for years. It is cheap, simple and has no side effects aside from a slight vinegar smell which will evaporate quickly anyhow.
If you want something more powerful, and with a nicer smell, you can try to make your own multipurpose cleaner. This recipe has been tried and tested. It can be used to disinfect and clean, and doesn’t contain all those unpronounceable chemicals used in most modern cleaners. It will work for fridge, oven, kitchen top and bathrooms - in fact my bathroom wash basin looked much better after using this than the regular bleach spray I was using before. I have even sprayed it on clothes to remove smells! It has also been officially tested for efficacy in killing germs and it passed with flying colours.
Make your own multipurpose disinfectant cleaner
160 ml Ethyl alcohol (a.k.a. rubbing alcohol) preferably strong, 70% or above
120 ml white vinegar
180 ml water (choose distilled to avoid potential water stain marks)
30-40 drops of tea tree essential oil (pure, organic, not synthetic)
15-30 drops of lavender essential oil (as above, optional)
30-40 drops lemon juice
Measure and pour the water, alcohol and vinegar into your spray bottle, then use a dropper to add the essential oils and lemon juice. I use the lemon juice sold in small bottles at the supermarket, which is supposed to be the real thing for people who don’t want to squeeze their own. Mix well, and keep sealed, away from sunlight and heat.
All of the essential oils used are natural antibacterials with disinfectant properties. Lemon is also a well known detoxifier for the body and helps to cut through grease. Lavender will, in addition to its other properties, also add a nice clean smell. The mix of all of these oils should sufficiently cover up the smell of the vinegar for those who don’t like it.
A word of caution on the use of pure essential oils
You want to use pure essential natural oils, nothing synthetic. We are looking to use the natural properties of the oils, not to add a fragrance to our cleaner. As I have said before, essential oils are nature’s medicine cabinet, in concentrated form. Remember that aromatherapy is a healing method unto itself, so, less is more. Also, these oils all have many properties, which may affect you in other ways (making you more energised or sleepy, for example). I suggest starting with the minimum doses and working up. Pay attention to how you, your family and pets react, and follow your intuition. They are natural but that doesn’t mean you should be throwing all caution to the wind!
Cleanliness is next to godliness
Using this DIY natural multipurpose disinfectant cleaner wouldn’t make much sense if you were to put all these wonderful oils and ingredients in a plastic spray bottle, thus adding plasticizers and those BPAs into the mix. Get yourself a good quality glass bottle, preferably lead free and dark (so light does not affect the oils), with a BPA-free spray nozzle, and spray away. Don’t forget, though, that cleanliness might be next to godliness but if you overdo it, your immune system might be the loser for it!