How toxic is my disinfectant?

Disinfectants (but not antimicrobial hand soaps) are considered pesticides, and label instructions are regulated by the U.S. EPA. You can get an idea of the short-term (also called acute) toxicity by looking for what is called the signal word—either Caution, Warning, or Danger—on the label. These signal words indicate how much of the product it would take to kill you by ingestion, inhalation, or skin contact, as well as whether skin or eye contact is dangerous. Danger indicates the highest hazard, Warning is next, and Caution is lowest. Also read the health hazard warnings to find out why the product is hazardous.

Concentrated disinfectants, especially those containing bleach (in the “ultra” concentration) or quaternary ammonium chlorides (“quats”) can be corrosive, that is they can cause permanent eye damage if spilled or splashed. Diluted products are much less dangerous. Chlorine bleach is also a powerful lung irritant and can form toxic compounds if mixed with ammonia or strong acids such as a toilet bowl cleaner.

Most active ingredients in disinfectants are toxic at some level, although the toxicity of the product itself depends on the strength of the active ingredient and the other ingredients in the product. 

Should I use a disinfectant to clean the kitchen and bathroom?

Ultimately, the choice is yours, but make sure you understand the risks and benefits first. Excessive use of antimicrobial products, especially in ineffective ways, may lead to resistant germs that are harder to kill.

We think the need for disinfectants is often overblown. Frequent, thorough cleaning with ordinary cleaning products is usually sufficient if you are careful to avoid high risk behaviors. Wash your hands well before eating and after using the bathroom. Close the lid before flushing the toilet. Do not contaminate food that will be eaten raw through contact with surfaces (countertops or cutting boards) or utensils that have contacted raw meat or poultry (raw eggs can also carry harmful bacteria). Replace kitchen sponges frequently and wring them out thoroughly after use. You can also boil them to kill the germs.

Note that hand soaps and dishwashing liquids containing antimicrobial ingredients usually do not kill viruses such as those causing colds and flu. They also may not be effective at killing food-borne bacteria on surfaces unless used in sufficient amount and left on the surface long enough. We think it’s generally better to focus on safe techniques in the kitchen than in relying on a disinfectant to protect you.

In the bathroom, keep fixtures clean. Use an exhaust fan to reduce moisture that may cause mold. In the event of special circumstances or illness that increases risk of disease transmission, talk with your doctor about appropriate measures to take.

What should I do about mold growing in my house?

The key to successful mold prevention and control is to reduce indoor moisture: it is impossible to remove all mold and mold spores indoors, but mold will not grow if moisture is not present. Leaks from plumbing, roofs, or window frames cause the biggest problems, and lack of ventilation in kitchens and bathrooms cause mold to grow around window frames, on or around bathroom tiles, and on cold walls. If there is visible mold growth, sampling or testing is usually not necessary.

Disinfectants such as chorine bleach used to be routinely recommended for cleaning up mold or mildew. However, thinking on this is changing, and many experts no longer recommend disinfecting for this purpose. The EPA recommends cleaning mold off hard surfaces with detergent and water, and drying completely. Find and correct the source of the moisture and dry wet building materials and furnishings within 24-48 hours. If you do not correct the moisture problem, the mold will probably grow back.

More information is available here. 

How toxic are laundry and dishwashing detergents?

In general, dishwashing liquid is one of the least toxic cleaning products you can buy, provided it does not contain antimicrobial ingredients. Automatic dishwasher detergents are much stronger. Besides being severe eye irritants, they may contain chlorine bleach and phosphates. Look for alternative products without these two ingredients, and do not use automatic dishwasher detergents for anything other than their intended purpose.

Laundry detergents vary widely in the ingredients they contain, but generally speaking are probably not especially toxic. Enzymes found in some products can be a problem for some people, even the residues left on clean clothing. Unfortunately, many ingredients in laundry detergents are not listed on labels, so it is impossible to be sure that products do not contain ingredients of concern. You can avoid unnecessary and potentially harmful ingredients in laundry detergents by purchasing brands without fragrances or optical brighteners.

How toxic is chlorine bleach? What can I use instead?

Chlorine bleach is chemically reactive, irritating to the lungs, and potentially corrosive to skin or eyes (in products designated as “ultra” concentrated). Normal strength bleach is not corrosive but is an eye and lung irritant.

For laundry, you can buy an oxygen bleach (containing hydrogen peroxide or percarbonate) or use borax to whiten clothes or brighten colors. Non-chlorine bleaches do not disinfect. 

Which cleaning products are the most toxic?

The most hazardous cleaning products are corrosive drain cleaners, oven cleaners, and toilet bowl cleaners. These products can cause skin or eye burns and potentially cause permanent eye damage. They can be identified by the signal word Danger on the label and the word “corrosive.” Most drain cleaners and oven cleaners fall into this category, and toilet bowl cleaners that are acids also usually do, but alternative products do exist and are worth looking for.

Wood and metal polishes may contain petroleum distillates that can be fatal if ingested by a child. Make sure the label does not say “Danger. Harmful or fatal if swallowed.”

Do cleaning products contain endocrine disrupting chemicals?

There is a type of detergent used in some products that breaks down to an endocrine disrupting chemical during the waste treatment process or after waste is discharged into receiving waters. The detergent is called nonylphenol ethoxylate (NPE), and the endocrine disruptor is nonylphenol (NP). Generally, the detergents themselves are not thought to be endocrine disruptors, although there usually is a small amount of NP in the product as a contaminant. The main concern with these ingredients is not for human health but rather for aquatic life. Male fish have been shown to become feminized when exposed to NP, as well as when exposed to sewage effluent, which also contains other more potent endocrine disrupting substances. NP acts like the hormone estrogen, causing male fish to produce a protein needed for egg production and normally only found in female fish. If exposure is high enough, it can interfere with reproduction.

Levels of NP and related chemicals in aquatic environments are generally low, but in some rivers levels are high enough to cause adverse effects, especially in combination with other pollutants. NP adheres to sediments and is persistent there, building up gradually over time.

NPE is found in a few brands of laundry detergents, disinfecting cleaners, and general purpose cleaners, and some personal care products. Its use is not widespread in cleaning products for the home, but is used frequently in industrial and institutional cleaners. Many companies are removing NPE from their products because of concerns about its breakdown into NP, which is much more persistent and toxic to fish than NPE.

It is difficult to know what detergents are used in products you buy. NPE is a type of nonionic surfactant, and often that is all the ingredients list will tell you. To avoid NPE, look for products containing safer surfactants, such as soap, vegetable-based detergents, alcohol ethoxylates, sodium lauryl sulfate, or sodium laureth sulfate.

Do you have recipes for home-made cleaning products?

Yes, here are for six simple recipes that use common kitchen materials like vinegar and baking soda. Readers who are interested in experimenting more should get a book like Annie Bond’s Clean and Green. If you do mix up your own cleaning products, be sure to label the container with what the concoction is for and what it contains. Keep homemade cleaners out of reach of children. Never mix chemical ingredients together without a recipe.

My dishwasher detergent contains phosphates. Is that a problem?

Phosphates in dishwasher detergents contribute to algae blooms in waterbodies where sewage treatment plants discharge their effluent. Generally, phosphorus is a bigger problem in freshwater lakes and rivers than in saltwater. Many states banned phosphates in laundry detergents during the 1980s and 1990s because they were the major source of phosphorus pollution at the time. As a result detergent manufacturers removed phosphates from their products. The bans contained an exemption for dishwashing products, however, because manufacturers claimed it was impossible to make effective products without phosphate. That is no longer true—it was arguably not true at the time either—and in 2006 Washington state passed legislation phasing out phosphates in dishwasher detergents as well. The extent of the problem with phosphates depends on where you live, but many products without phosphates are available from companies such as Trader Joe’s, Country Save, Seventh Generation, Bi-O-Kleen, and others.

I’ve been told to use TSP to prep before painting. Doesn’t it contain phosphate?

TSP stands for trisodium phosphate, and it does contain phosphate. A phosphate-free alternative is available, commonly called phosphate-free TSP. The name is a bit inaccurate because the product is not TSP at all, but a combination of completely different chemicals. The product is similar in toxicity to a dishwasher detergent without the chlorine, and probably similar in toxicity to TSP itself. It’s a good alternative, especially for outdoor use.

Is chlorine bleach safe for a septic system?

According to experts, if a septic system is operating properly and correctly sized for the home, normal use of chlorine bleach shouldn’t be a problem. By the time bleach is discharged from the washing machine, it is largely broken down and not toxic to the bacteria in your septic system. Septic system users should be careful about quantities of any household chemicals and avoid disposing of chemicals by dumping them down the drain.

There are some concerns with chlorine bleach generally, however, and we think consumers should try to minimize its use and choose alternatives when possible. When chlorine bleach is used, it reacts with soil and other chemicals on surfaces to form small amounts of a large number of chemical compounds, some of which are quite toxic, for example chloroform and carbon tetrachloride. Chlorine bleach is reactive and forms toxic byproducts if mixed with ammonia or strong acids. The more concentrated (“ultra”) bleaches now available may be corrosive to skin or eye tissue (check the label for the word Danger).

Are “natural” cleaning products safer for me or the environment?

Some are, and others may not be. The term “natural” can be misleading. Some naturally occurring substances like lead, arsenic, and mercury are highly toxic, though they are not likely to be used in “natural” cleaning products. More frequently, natural substances are often combined with or treated with synthetic or toxic materials that buyers of “natural” products would probably not want in their products. Unfortunately, there is no standard definition of “natural” in relation to product ingredients. Would it include petroleum products, for example? Many coconut-based detergents actually are partially petroleum.

Your best bet is to read labels and look for products that have all the ingredients listed. More information is available here. 

What is the least-toxic soap for washing a car?

All soaps and detergents are toxic to fish. Some are more toxic than others, but what product you choose is less important than how and where you do the job. If you are using a soap or detergent, do not wash the car on a hard surface that drains to the street or a storm drain. That could allow toxic levels of chemicals to reach the nearest stream or other water body. Park the car over a permeable surface like grass that will absorb any soap or detergent and allow it to biodegrade.

You can use any carwash detergent that does not contain phosphates, or you can use a little dishwashing liquid (do NOT use automatic dishwasher detergent because it may contain phosphates, chlorine bleach, and other more-toxic chemicals). Use the smallest amount of cleaner that will do the job, and, when you are finished, pour the leftover soapy water down the toilet; do not empty it into the street.

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