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Green Cleaning: Products

When it comes to products, there is no quick-and-easy formula for evaluating how green, or safe, they are. It all has to do with risk -- to ourselves and the environment -- Rathey says.

Arthur B. Weissman, PhD, is president and CEO of Green Seal Inc., a nonprofit organization considered to be the gold standard for "green certification." Green Seal awards their seal of approval to manufacturers who adhere to specific health and environmental standards -- a mark that many consumers have learned to look for when searching for green products.

Weissman says that "we should always try to use ingredients that are as harmless as possible," he says. "The less hazard overall, the less likely it is to have an adverse environmental or health effect."

Green Cleaning: What to Avoid

Annie B. Bond, author of Clean & Green and Home Enlightenment: Practical, Earth-Friendly Advice for Creating a Nurturing, Healthy and Toxin-Free Home and Lifestyle, recommends paying special attention to what she calls "signal words" on labels, which are regulated by the Consumer Product Safety Commission and must be placed on hazardous products. The most dangerous ones, she says, are:

Poison/Danger: which means the product is extremely toxic; a few drops can kill you.

Warning: means the product is moderately toxic; as little as a teaspoonful can kill.

Caution: refers to a less-toxic product; 2 tablespoons to a cup can kill you.

Other words that often signal danger are "Strong Sensitizer," "Toxic," "Carcinogen," Flammable," and "Corrosive." Bond recommends that we avoid all products containing these warning labels.

In addition to hazardous products, Weissman recommends that consumers also avoid those with any significant amount of phosphates (more than 0.5%); high levels of volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which contribute to outdoor pollution and may also have negative effects on health; and those containing ethylenediaminetetraacetic acid, or "EDTA," which is not biodegradable.

Other potentially harmful yet commonly used ingredients (often in all-purpose cleaners) include:

Alkylphenolethoxylates (APEs): often found in surfactants, which Weissman calls "the workhorses" of cleaning chemicals. APEs tend to either be endocrine disruptors or break down into endocrine disruptors, he explains, which adversely affect the human endocrine system.

Certain glycol ethers, like 2-Butoxyethanol (or "Butyl"): typically found in household cleaners and "degreasers," they are a lung irritant.

Heavy metals ( chromium, selenium, lead, mercury): often used to add color to cleaning products.

Ammonia: a respiratory irritant found in many cleaning products

Ethanolamines: another respiratory irritant common to all-purpose cleaners

Chlorine: mostly found in bleach, can be irritating to the lungs and eyes.

Rathey says we should also be wary of anything with a strong fragrance, which usually means it contains potentially hazardous petrochemical ingredients. It's also a good idea to clean when no one else is around -- especially children. And no matter what products we use, proper ventilation is crucial.

"Run the exhaust fan in the bathroom and kitchen, or open a window. Create an air flow," he says. "You consume daily about 4 pounds of liquid and 2 pounds of food, but about 30 pounds of air. It's the No. 1 route of exposure to contamination. What you're not breathing can't hurt you."

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