The Toxic Truth, Part 2

December 4, 1998

By Michael Jessen

Butyl cellosolve. It sounds harmless, although its more scientific names are a little scarier -- 2-butoxy-1-ethanol or ethylene glycol.

According to The Safe Shopper's Bible, butyl cellosolve is a mild skin and eye irritant. However, it is readily absorbed through the skin and can damage blood and the body's ability to make blood. It is also toxic to the central nervous system, kidneys, and liver. Authors David Steinman and Samuel Epstein do not recommend use of products containing butyl cellosolve.

Yet such products may be sitting under your kitchen or bathroom sink at this moment. It is a common ingredient in some all-purpose cleaners such as Pine Sol, Fantastik, and Formula 409. It is also an ingredient in 3 M brand carpet cleaners. It is an ingredient in some glass cleaners such as S.O.S and Windex.

"Danger" warnings are found on extremely hazardous products. "Warning" and "Caution" indicate less hazardous products. Products without warning labels are least hazardous. A hazardous product can be toxic, flammable, corrosive, or reactive or any combination of these.

But whether a product contains butyl cellosolve does not have to be on the label. The real safety or danger of cleaning products is difficult to assess because manufacturers are not required to list exact ingredients on the label. Industry has successfully argued that consumers won't know what the words mean anyway if they list all the product ingredients.

You can't look at a label to be sure, for instance, that a certain furniture polish doesn't contain nitrobenzene (a substance commonly used in furniture polish that could be fatal if swallowed), or that a mold and mildew cleaner is free from pentachlorophenol (another commonly used deadly substance). Some product ingredients, though, are protected by trade secrets and even the government and poison-control centres cannot find them out.

Last week, the Washington Post took a pot-shot at Windex's 30-second commercial for its new antibacterial cleaner which appears to instantly give "a germ-free shine." The label's fine print says the cleanser must stand for 10 minutes before it kills germs as advertised. The dirty little secret about many of these products is that their germ-fighting claims are often misleading and sometimes exaggerated, according to health experts, government officials and some industry executives.

So if the products often don't live up to their claims and if they may be dangerous to human health, what's a person to do? Instead of using high-priced and harmful products, why not consider the cleaners our grandmothers used?

Most household cleaning can be accomplished effectively and safely using combinations of the "big five": baking soda, vinegar, washing soda, borax, and pure soap (like Ivory). A good all-purpose cleaner can be made by combining a half cup of white vinegar and a quarter cup of baking soda with half a gallon of water. Some recommended brands of less toxic all-purpose cleaners are: Ajax Lemon Fresh Liquid, Dr. Bronner's Castille Soap, Earthrite, Ecover Cream, and Mr. Clean.

Easy-Off Fume Free Oven Cleaner in the pump and Ecover Cream Cleaner are recommended for cleaning your oven, but I've found that a paste of baking soda and water combined with a little elbow grease will do the job adequately and save money.

Live natural, think natural and act natural. That's the solution says an Alberta company, Natural Cleaning Concepts Inc. "Our environmentally friendly complete water-based cleaning system ACT Natural represents the household cleaning of tomorrow and will in due time replace the outdated traditional cleaning," says president Chad Rissanen. The products use only water and reduce the consumption of cleaning chemicals by up to 90%. Laboratory tests show bacterial reduction of up to 99%.

Act Natural cleaning cloths are made up of extremely fine fibres, only 1/100 the size of a hair strand. Used dry, they work by static electricity; when moistened with water, the products work by capillary action. These products are available through two local distributors - Linda Rak in the Nelson area, 1-888-317-5511 and Katie Kabatoff in the Castlegar area, 250-304-2380.

TRASH TIP - Information sheets to help you reduce use of toxic products are available from the Regional District of Central Kootenay Waste Reduction Department.


All columns archived here are copyright © 1999 by Michael Jessen, all rights reserved. If you wish to print an individual column for your own use, please do so. If you wish to publish any of the columns in either print or electronic format, please contact the author at toenail@netidea.com to arrange appropriate payment.