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May. 23, 2006

Risks of cleaning house disclosed


By Julie Sevrens Lyons
Mercury News

One manufacturer promotes its pine-scented cleaning products as providing
a ``Clean you can smell. A clean you can trust.'' But a groundbreaking new
study suggests that household cleaners and air fresheners -- particularly
those with pine, orange and lemon scents -- may emit harmful levels of
toxic pollutants.

Exposure to some of these pollutants and their byproducts may exceed
regulatory guidelines when used repeatedly or in small, poorly ventilated
rooms, researchers at the University of California-Berkeley and Lawrence
Berkeley National Laboratory concluded after a four-year study.

Among the conclusions:

. A person who cleans a shower stall for 15 minutes with a product
containing glycol ethers -- known toxic air contaminants -- may be exposed
to three times the recommended one-hour exposure limit.

. Using air freshener in a child's room along with an air purifier that
creates ozone can result in formaldehyde levels 25 percent higher than the
state recommends. Formaldehyde is a known carcinogen.

. Professional house cleaners who clean four homes a day, five days per
week take in about double the recommended formaldehyde levels.

The report is the first to measure emissions from cleaning products during
typical indoor use, as well as the health risks associated with inhaling

``My suggestion is don't stop cleaning, but clean with consciousness that
cleaning products themselves contain materials that shouldn't be
inhaled,'' said study author William Nazaroff, a professor of
environmental engineering at UC-Berkeley.

Many consumers just aren't aware, he said, that common household cleaners
can be a major cause of indoor air pollution. Some contain ethylene-based
glycol ethers. Also of concern are terpenes, compounds derived from plant
oils that are widely used to give cleaning products and air fresheners
their pleasant, fruity scent. The scientists found that terpenes mix with
ozone in the air to create formaldehyde.

``On the one hand, they think `I'm cleaning germs,' which isn't a bad
thing,'' said Gennet Paauwe, spokeswoman for the California Air Resources
Board, which funded the study. ``But what else are you doing in the
process? You or your family members may be inhaling toxins while you're
doing that.''

Brian Sansoni, a spokesman for the Soap and Detergent Association in
Washington, said common sense is key to the safe handling of household
cleansers. Properly ventilating a room while cleaning it and using
cleaners sparingly are effective strategies for those concerned about
their exposure to chemicals, he said.

``It's important to note that these products are used safely and
effectively by Californians every single day in their homes, in their
offices, in their schools and in health care settings,'' Sansoni said.
``And what can't be lost is the fact that proper use of cleaning products
and disinfectants is critical to improve public health and disease

The scientists bought 21 household cleaners and air fresheners at East Bay
stores, selecting products they thought might be associated with higher
levels of air pollution because of their fresh-scent claims. As it turns
out, six contained ethylene-based glycol ethers and 12 contained terpenes.

The researchers, however, won't reveal which products they used, and which
might pose the greatest risk to human health. Household cleaners as a
whole and not individual brands are the main problem, Nazaroff said.

He also cautioned against falling for deceptive marketing and encouraged
shoppers to buy scent-free cleansing agents rather than those with
unsubstantiated claims that they are environmentally superior or

``I don't want to go so far as to say we shouldn't use any
terpene-containing products,'' he said, ``but what is advertised as being
organic and green and good for us isn't automatically so.''

With this newfound knowledge, what does Nazaroff's family do?

``In my household, we haven't stopped using products that contain glycol
ethers,'' he said, ``but we use them more cautiously now.''


The study, ``Indoor Air Chemistry: Cleaning Agents, Ozone and Toxic Air
Contaminants,'' can be viewed online (
research/apr/past/indoor.htm). For tips on how to make your own non-toxic
household cleaners, check out or
Contact Julie Sevrens Lyons at or (408) 920-5989.
For updates and info, contact scott at planttrees dot org.