Dear EarthTalk: I want to use cleaning products that are healthier for the environment, but I worry that baking soda and the like won't really get my tub and toilet germ-free. Should I continue using bleach products in the bathroom?--Margaret Pierce, Columbia, MO
When it comes to household cleaning products, most mainstream brands make use of chlorine bleach, ammonia or any number of other chemicals that can wreak havoc on the environment and human health.
Ammonia is a volatile organic compound that can irritate the respiratory system and mucous membranes if inhaled, and can cause chemical burns if spilled on the skin. Bleach contains sodium hypochlorite, which can cause eczema and other skin ailments as well as breathing difficulties if inhaled. And when it reacts with other elements in the environment, toxic "organochlorines" can form, damaging the ozone layer and causing health issues such as immune suppression, reproductive difficulties and even cancer.
Fortunately, growing public concern about the health effects of toxic exposure have led to an "explosion of environmentally friendlier and non-toxic products," says the health information website, WebMD. "There are many products in this category--from laundry detergents and fabric softeners to multi-surface and floor cleaners, to tile and bathroom cleaners--that are ... safer for people and the planet."
WebMD warns that while many are indeed safer, others are "greenwashed," meaning they are "marketed as natural while still including suspect chemicals." How does one know? "Get in the simple practice of looking at product labels to see if the cleaning manufacturer is clearly disclosing all ingredients," reports WebMD. "If it is not ... it could mean the manufacturer is trying to hide a particular suspect ingredient."
Also, just because a product has an eco-certification printed on its label...