24 May, 2022

Toxic chemicals can be right in front of us, yet hard to see. Unlike plastic pollution, harmful or hazardous synthetic substances aren’t as tangible or glaringly obvious. Chemical pollution is ubiquitous and impossible to avoid entirely.

But there are many ways you can start reducing your own chemical footprint in your own home. Under the kitchen sink is as good as any place to start looking.  

Before panicking, it’s important to understand what we’re aiming for. There’s actually no such thing as ‘chemical-free’ – even water is a chemical, after all. Chemicals aren’t inherently bad. Some, depending on how we use them, can pose a risk to our health and the planet.

A totally toxic-free lifestyle is unattainable, but as consumers, we can all streamline our ‘toxic load’.  That’s the amount of toxic chemicals we are exposed to on a daily basis. We can do this by making more eco-conscious choices about the personal care products we use on our bodies, the food we eat, the clothes we wear, and the things we use to clean our homes.  

So back to that cupboard under the sink, it may well be full to the brim of detergents and cleaning products. Consider the time we use a surface spray to clean the kitchen. It’s such a small snapshot of a long, convoluted and global supply chain. Every product has an impact, starting with its manufacture and transportation, right up to its disposal.

The processes used to make bleach, for example, can be extremely toxic to factory workers, and the resulting wastewater is harmful to aquatic life. At home, when something washes down the plughole or gets rinsed down the drain, it ends up in the environment. If it’s easily biodegradable in those conditions, that’s no problem. But some chemicals persist in the oceans, soil and inside us.  

“A totally toxic-free lifestyle is unattainable, but as consumers, we can all streamline our ‘toxic load’.”

Chemicals have different impacts on human health. While some cleaning sprays may suddenly make people with asthma very wheezy, other more chronic effects are slow to develop. Some plasticizer chemicals, such as bisphenols used as hardening agents in plastic manufacturing or the phthalates used as fixatives for fragrances in personal care products and to make plastics soft, strong and flexible, are known to be endocrine disruptors – they interfere with the body’s own hormone systems, either blocking or mimicking hormone molecules.  

Other chemicals can have carcinogenic effects – over time. They increase the risk of certain cancers. A 60-year-long study recently found that granddaughters of women exposed to DDT (an agricultural pesticide banned in the USA 50 years ago) before or during pregnancy have higher rates of obesity and earlier first menstrual periods – both established risks for breast cancer. So some chemicals have human health consequences for generations.  

Some chemicals are more easily broken down by the body’s own detox mechanisms, though. For this reason, some parabens – used as preservatives and often earmarked as major endocrine disruptors – are considered to be ‘pseudo-persistent’. They get quickly excreted in the urine, but constant daily exposure through the products we use and the food we eat means that levels are forever being topped up.

Few studies show a direct causal link between parabens and breast cancer. But there’s a chance that some longer-chain parabens could affect breast cancer cells so a precautionary approach is worth taking, especially if you’re pregnant or breastfeeding.  

While we can’t avoid everything, we can streamline our toxic load by reducing the number of different chemicals we are exposed to on a daily basis, and finding alternatives that don’t contain the most toxic ingredients. Simplifying your own household cleaning routine is a great first step to reducing your chemical footprint. 

Anna’s 10 top tips for toxic-free cleaning 

Homes don’t need to be sterile

Chlorine bleach and other disinfectants are overkill in a residential setting. Ditch the disinfectant and avoid cleaning products with ‘caution’, ‘danger’ or ‘warning’ on the label. Anna’s personal favourites include Spruce (https://www.wearespruce.co/)  and Bide (https://www.bideboxes.com/ 

A clean home shouldn’t smell of anything, so avoid those synthetic smells.

Fragrances release VOCs or volatile organic compounds – things like formaldehyde which evaporate easily at room temperature.

So use fragrance-free products labelled as low- or no-VOCs, especially for sprays that are more easily inhaled.  

Look for refill options.

Check online for in-store refill locations near you, visit your local zero-waste shop, buy in bulk or subscribe to a home delivery service that recycles your refill pouches.  

Buy concentrated pods.

Drop plant-based cleaning capsules or a powdered version into your empty spray bottle, add water and shake to dissolve.  

Choose child-friendly options.

Preferably a bleach-free and plant-based cleaning spray that gets rid of greasy residues from surfaces, toys, bibs and high chairs. Make your own. Bicarbonate of soda mixed with sea salt and white vinegar, plus a good dose of elbow grease, makes a great scrubbing agent. White vinegar with lemon juice produces an effective smear-free, multi-purpose cleaning spray. 

Look out for emerging probiotic cleaning products from companies like MACK www.keepitmack.com and Ingenious Probiotics www.ingenious-probiotics.com

Which are believed to fight germs with ‘healthy’ strains of bacteria and decrease the risk of antimicrobial resistance from developing, perhaps by out-competing other strains.  

Clean away house dust regularly with a damp cloth.

And remember to wipe down surfaces of electronic products such as the TV and Wifi routers because dust that settles on these appliances is more likely to absorb persistent chemicals such as flame retardants.   

Direct any cleaning sprays close to the surface and make sure they get wiped off.  

Reduce the number of different spray products you use in your home and choose ones with fewer ingredients.

Often one product will clean multiple surfaces or work just as well in the kitchen as it does in the bathroom. 

Avoid the greenwash.

Look for proof of sustainability claims, and don’t be duped by clever marketing lingo that makes consumers need to buy more stuff! Ask your retailer or manufacturer for more information if you’re in any doubt.  

Go toxic free book coverAnna Turns is an environmental journalist and author of Go Toxic Free: Easy and Sustainable Ways to Reduce Chemical Pollution (Michael O’Mara; £14.99, out now).  




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