Life & Style | Environment

How green is your house?

Being eco-friendly isn’t just about preventing harm to the environment, but preventing harm to your health too. Khulekani Madlela and Tabitha Barda investigate the common household items and cleaning products that harbour toxic dirty secrets

  • By Khulekani Madlela and Tabitha Barda, Friday magazine
  • Published: 13:23 April 23, 2013
  • Friday

  • Image Credit: Supplied picture
  • “When shopping for cleaning products prefer clearly labelled, plant-based, eco-friendly products,” says Gundeep Singh, founder and CEO of The Change Initiative.

When you knuckle down for a good spring clean, you want to rid your home of dust and dirt and the germs they carry. But you could be exposing yourself to even more dangerous problems. Asthma, skin irritation, immune- and nervous-system complications, hormonal disorders and even cancer have all been linked to chemicals contained in common household cleaners – the same nasties that also harm the environment. And it’s not just cleaning products that hold a dirty secret – materials almost all of us have in our homes such as plastic items or fibreboard furniture could harbour sinister compounds too, as well as the products that we use to keep our bodies spick and span. Come with us on a tour of the contents of your home and discover what some of these dangerous chemicals are, what health problems they may cause and what the safer alternative is...


There’s nothing like the smell of flowers and the like, but your average aerosol freshener will contain aerosol propellants (to help it spray), as well as petroleum distillates and the chemical formaldehyde, according to the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The fumes associated with these substances can be strong irritants for the eyes, nose and throat, says Dr Rajendran Nayar of iCare Clinic in Dubai, while formaldehyde has been associated with cancer, and both petroleum distillates and aerosol propellants are highly flammable.

What’s the alternative? “When shopping for cleaning products prefer clearly labelled, plant-based, eco-friendly products,” says Gundeep Singh, founder and CEO of The Change Initiative. Or you can make your own natural air freshener by boiling peels of citrus fruits with aromatic herbs and spices like cinnamon and cloves, says Mariana Paunescu, executive housekeeper of The Grand Millennium Dubai. “Put all the ingredients together, bring to a boil, then simmer until the scent spreads to other rooms. You can reuse the mixture three times, but keep it refrigerated between uses.”


Used in the kitchen, bathroom and on pretty much any surface, these contain many different kinds of ingredients – such as detergents, grease-cutting agents, solvents, and disinfectants – and with these come many related hazardous chemicals. “All-purpose cleaners may contain diethanolamine (DEA) and triethanolamine (TEA), which react to form nitrosamines, and these are carcinogenic and capable of penetrating the skin,” says Dr Nayar.

What’s the alternative? In our germ-obsessed society, the commitment to cleaning can go too far and, sometimes, a little bit of dirt is a good thing says Gundeep. “Studies show that excessive use of antibacterial cleaning products and soaps may inhibit the development of the immune system in children, leading to allergies and chronic respiratory illnesses.” Instead of spritzing chemicals all over the house, regular dusting and use of a mild soap diluted in water will keep your house clean and healthy. “Baking soda is good for scrubbing, use it to clean the kitchen cabinets and counters,” says Mariana, “and instead of using a detergent to remove stains, dip a toothbrush in white vinegar and lightly rub the
affected area.”


It might help you to see the outside world clearly, but the ammonia and isopropanol in mainstream window cleaners have very murky effects indeed. “Fumes from ammonia-containing cleaners are respiratory irritants,” says Dr Nayar. As well as affecting your lungs, ammonia can cause burns or rashes on skin, or produce deadly chloramine gas if mixed with chlorine-containing products such as bleach. Meanwhile isopropanol irritates mucous membranes and ingestion may result in drowsiness, unconsciousness and death.

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What’s the alternative? Mariana says you can avoid exposing yourself to these dangerous chemicals with your own natural glass cleaner. “Add drops of lemon or lime juice to water when cleaning windows instead of using harsh chemicals, and for a streak-free shine use an old newspaper,” she says.


Products like shampoos and body lotions contain Propylene Glycol, a toxic substance that’s also found in antifreeze. It’s a potential hormone disruptor, and may increase cancer risks or trigger allergic reactions. Deodorants contain TEA and DEA as well as parabens [for more on parabens see p48], which have been linked to breast cancer and renal dysfunction, says Dr Nayar. The fact these products contain such chemicals is extra dangerous because of the nature of their usage, he explains. “When you apply a product on your skin, it gets absorbed into your system and if it’s harmful the body tries to get rid of it through sweat or urine. But if the level of toxicity is too high the chemical begins to affect vital organs like the bladder, liver and kidneys and makes you ill.” 

What’s the alternative? Products with safer formulations are now available on the market and are often labelled ‘organic’ by a third body, certifying the natural origin of the ingredients, says Gundeep. Another option is to make your own cosmetics. “A deodorant made from baking soda, cornstarch and lemon juice smells as sweet as a store-bought one minus the harmful effects,” says Mariana. “The citric acid in lemon juice kills the bacteria that causes odour while baking soda and cornstarch absorb perspiration.”


People usually come in contact with Bisphenol A (BPA) and phthalates (plastic softeners) when touching materials such as carpets, floor tiles (vinyl), soft toys, bottles – including baby bottles – and food containers. In the case of the latter, these phthalates can migrate to food and drinks when heated and, when consumed, mimic the hormone oestrogen, which can disrupt the endocrine system and result in cancer or reduced levels of fertility. 

What’s the alternative? Gundeep suggests using glass or ceramics in the kitchen and wood, bamboo or natural fabrics for toys. If you want to use plastic containers, search for those that are labelled BPA-free. 


Most households have furniture – shelves, furniture tops or cabinets – made from MDF (medium density fibreboard) boards, which are glued together using urea-formaldehyde (UF) resins. For several months after manufacture, the furniture will emit formaldehyde, says Gundeep, and depending on the level of intensity, an accumulation of formaldehyde fumes indoors can cause watery eyes, a burning sensation in the eyes and throat, wheezing, nausea and fatigue. In some cases, it can trigger severe allergic reactions and asthma. 

What’s the alternative? You can limit the emissions and even seal the formaldehyde in by painting the naked sides of the furniture. Better still invest in hardwood or buy your furniture from manufacturers incorporating sustainability criteria, Gundeep advises.


Know that freshly painted room smell? If your paint is oil-based that smell will contain volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which irritate the eyes, nose and throat. Other symptoms that people experience after exposure to VOCs include headaches, nausea and fatigue.

What’s the alternative? There are less-harmful water-based paints available in the market. These emit fewer VOCs and do not have a strong smell.

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