The dirt on cleaning products

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Helpful resources

Greenerchoices.org provides green ratings and other consumer information about environmentally friendly products and practices, including recipes for less-toxic cleaners.

• The Household Products Database provides information about chemicals, potential health effects and safe handling of specific products. Visit hpd.nlm.nih.gov/.

• The Cleveland Clinic Center for Consumer Health Information provides information about household cleaners, including a chart detailing potentially harmful chemicals in various cleaners and possible health effects. Visit www.clevelandclin...>

At long last, it's time to open windows and doors to welcome spring and waft out stale winter air.

Inevitably, it's also a time when many residents take their cleaning a few steps further, scrubbing floors and grout, washing windows, cleaning carpets, and wiping down sticky cabinets and refrigerators.

While a good cleaning can reduce dust, allergens, bacteria and germs, the cleaning products themselves aren't so sparkly. Many contain toxic chemicals with potentially harmful hazards.

These chemicals are found in household products including oven and drain cleaners, wood and metal polishes, toilet and bathroom cleaners, air fresheners, window and glass cleaners, carpet cleaners and bleach.

Toxic substances are harmful to the environment, animals and humans when inhaled, swallowed or absorbed by the skin. Depending on the person and exposure, a toxic substance may have no effects on a person, may cause short-term health problems or facilitate permanent health issues, according to the Cleveland Clinic for Consumer Health Information.

According to a chart on the organization's Web site, various harmful chemicals in many cleaning products can irritate the eyes, lungs and throat, cause burns, nausea, dizziness or respiratory problems or damage organs and tissues. More than a few of these chemicals also are thought to cause cancer and other disorders.

Most cleaning products are considered safe when used as directed. However, a 2006 study at the University of California at Berkley found that using these cleaners under certain conditions, such as cleaning large surfaces in small rooms, can result in unhealthy exposures.

While unsettling, this information doesn't mean people need to stop using these products altogether. It does, however, warrant careful use of household cleaners as well as consideration of others in the home who are susceptible to illness, including elderly individuals and young children.

People uncomfortable with or at higher risk for potential health problems associated with some cleaning products may opt for less-toxic commercial products or homemade cleaners.

Web sites such as Greenerchoices.org provide recipes for various cleaning tasks using ingredients such as baking soda, borax, hydrogen peroxide, lemon juice and white vinegar. The peace of mind that results from using less toxic, and less expensive, cleaning solutions may be worth the extra time and elbow grease.

Reading product packaging and directions is the first step in safely using any commercial cleaning product. Warning labels, required on products containing known hazardous chemicals, indicate the extent of potential harm and protective measures to prevent harm, such as wearing rubber gloves, goggles or a mask.

"Danger" is the most serious warning, referring to highly toxic products that are corrosive, poisonous or extremely flammable. "Warning, "caution," "irritants," "corrosives" and "sensitizers" indicate other specific health hazards.

Greenerchoices.org, a consumer information Web site affiliated with Consumer Reports, notes that it can be tricky for consumers to find the least toxic products since manufacturers are required to list only those ingredients that are active disinfectants or known to be potentially hazardous.

Some companies, such as Ecover, Trader Joes and Seventh Generation claim to list all ingredients in their products.

Consumers also should be wary of claims such as "nontoxic" and "natural," which do not have standard definitions and often have not been independently verified or regulated. They should keep in mind that "natural" ingredients also can be toxic and irritating (lemon juice in the eyes, for example).

To prevent overexposure to harmful chemicals, people using cleaning products should ventilate rooms before and after cleaning, promptly remove cleaning products after cleaning, dilute products that should not be used full strength and avoid overusing the products, according to recommendations from the U.C. Berkeley study.

Other safety precautions include not smoking, immediately cleaning up spills and not mixing cleaning products such as ammonia and bleach, which releases a toxic gas.

Of course, cleaning products should be stored out of the reach of children and pets, and the number for the Poison Control Center, (800) 222-1222, should be readily available.

Old or unwanted household chemicals can harm the environment if disposed of incorrectly. Routt County offers a service to collect this waste April through October. The fee is $20. To make an appointment, call (800) 449-7587.

Tamera Manzanares can be reached at tammarie74@yahoo.com.

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