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Report Warns Against Over-Use of Household Disinfectants

'Too clean' may be as hazardous as 'not clean enough'

Clean freaks beware. A new study by a national environmental group links some chemicals found in everyday household disinfectants to asthma, hormone imbalances, and other health problems.

The report by Womens Voices for the Earth (WVE) -- titled Disinfectant Overkill: How Too Clean May Be Hazardous to Our Health -- cites more than 40 scientific studies that illustrate the health risks associated with chemicals found in kitchen cleaners, handy wipes, and other common cleaning products.

We dont want to come out as group completely against disinfectants, WVEs staff scientist and report author Alexandra Scranton told ConsumerAffairs.com. We want folks to have a different perspective and think before the using these (disinfectant) products and where they could use non-disinfectant cleaners.

Companies are working hard to convince consumers, and especially moms, that they need to regularly disinfect every surface in their homes to protect their families from illness, she added. But thats simply not true and it may not be healthy.

A spokesman for the makers of household and industrial cleaners, however, says the industrys products are safe when used as directed and calls it an extraordinary stretch to link the disinfectants to various health problems.

In its study, WVE assessed the potential health risks of five classes of disinfectants or antimicrobial chemicals:

Chlorine bleach: WVE says this chemical is commonly used to treat drinking water, sanitize swimming pools, and whiten laundry. The group calls it a strong eye, skin, and respiratory irritant. Mixing chlorine bleach with other cleaners like ammonia can release dangerous chlorine gas, the group adds. Exposure to chlorine gas can cause coughing, shortness of breath, chest pain, nausea, or other symptoms, WVE states in its report;

Ammonia: This chemical, according to WVE, is often in glass cleaners and other hard-surface cleaners. But it can be irritating to the skin, eyes, throat, and lungs, the group says. Ammonia can burn your skin, and can damage your eyes (including blindness) upon contact, the report states;

Triclosan and Triclocarban: These chemicals, commonly added to hand soap, dish soap, and toothpaste, are linked to hormone imbalance and potential increased risk of breast cancer, the group states in its report. Triclocarban appears to amplify testosterone in the body, while Triclosan has been shown to interfere with communication between cells in the brain and the heart, the group states, adding that studies have found these chemicals in 75 percent of people tested;

Ammonium quaternary compounds (quats): WVE says these chemicals are found in disinfectant sprays and toilet cleaners and have been identified as known inducers of occupational asthma. The groups report states that some quats are also linked to decreased fertility and birth defects in mice;

Nano-silver: These chemicals can be added to textiles, plastics, soaps, packaging, and other materials to give them the natural antibacterial property of silver metal, according to the WVE. Nano-silver particles can penetrate deep into your body and have been shown to be toxic to the liver and brain, the group states.

Use with caution

WVE acknowledges these chemicals are effective germ killers, but warns consumers to use them with caution.

Just as you wouldnt use a sledgehammer to kill a fly, were advocating for people to use disinfecting products only when the situation calls for them, says WVE Executive Director Erin Switalski. Consumers need to know that the harsh chemicals found in disinfectants are simply too strong for everyday use all over the house.

The Integrative Nursing Institute agrees.

Antimicrobial chemicals available in the home today were initially developed for hospital and clinical settings, but for the vast majority of people, the home does not need to be as sterile as an operating room, says Susan Luck, RN, director of the Florida-based nursing organization.

WVEs report cites another worrisome trend linked to the excessive use of disinfectants: The overuse of disinfectant chemicals also contributes to the growing problem of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, more commonly known as superbugs, the report states. The truth is that in most households, the need for routine disinfection is rare.

Used as directed

A spokesman for the The Soap and Detergent Association (SDA) defends its industrys products and says theyre safe when used as directed. SDA members produce more than 90 percent of the cleaning products marketed in the United States.

The most important information for consumers -- moms and dads -- when it comes to using cleaners and disinfectants is to read the directions, SDA spokesman Brian Sansoni told ConsumerAffairs.com. These products are safe when used as directed. These products are used safely and effectively by millions of people every single day in our homes, hospitals, schools, daycares, and other work places.

What we dont want to see are people discouraged from using beneficial cleaning products and disinfectant products, he added. The products that are on the store shelves have gone through an enormous amount of research, development, and (safety) testing.

Sansoni downplays WVUs claims that some chemicals used in disinfectants are linked to serious health problems.

Thats an extraordinary stretch and there are no links that weve seen, he says. I think sometimes theres some misunderstanding from studies done where people have not been tested. To claim that everyday normal use of these products is a direct cause of (illness) is quite a stretch.

Some of the chemicals in cleaning products may trigger a reaction, Sansoni says. Thats why consumers have to follow the directions. But cleaning is one of the most inexpensive ways to control asthma and allergies. He added: When real-world problems occur (with disinfectants) its from the misuse of products, product abuse, or improper storage. My message to consumers who use these products is to follow the directions.

But an environmental and public health consultant says using disinfectants as directed wont solve all the problems linked to the chemicals.

Even when used as directed, these chemicals inadvertently end up polluting our bodies and our environment, says Ann Blake, PhD, University of California Berkeley Extension Instructor.

What to do

What non-disinfectant options are there for clean freaks and consumers worried about the prevention and spread of illnesses or harming the environment?

The best way to avoid disease is by washing your hands regularly with soap and water, says WVus Alexandra Scranton. We believe there is a place for disinfectants, but we think the overuse (of them) could be causing more problems.

The groups report echoes those sentiments.

Using cleaners containing antimicrobial chemicals would actually kill the germs in your house, and although this sounds like a better idea, studies show that there is no demonstrated health advantage to using these types of cleaners.

WVEs report also outlines several green alternatives to cleaning products that contain harsh chemicals:

Vinegar: Use this as a glass and window cleaner. The acid in the vinegar also destroys bacteria;

Borax: This naturally occurring powdered substance can be used as a water softener or as a freshener in the laundry. The chemical properties of borax also makes it a good cleaner and bleaching agent;

Essential Oils: These concentrated liquids are distilled from plants. Studies have shown that essential oils such as thyme oil, rosemary oil, clove oil, eucalyptus oil, and oregano oil, have natural antibacterial properties.

WVE also encourages consumers to practice what it calls Good Food Safety.

Those safety measures include:

• Washing hands before handling food;
• Rinsing fruits and vegetables under running water;
• Keeping raw meats, poultry, seafood, and eggs separate from ready-to-eat foods to avoid cross-contamination;
• Cooking foods to a high enough internal temperature to kill harmful bacteria in raw meats or eggs;
• Refrigerating or freezing foods as soon as you get them home. Never leave cooked foods out for more than two hours;

The group also offered another safety tip for consumers worried about bacteria growing in sponges microwave them for one minute.

Asked if she has any disinfectants in her home, WVEs Scranton told us: I do have some products, but they tend to be locked away in less convenient place. I have a spray bottle with vinegar on my counter.

She added: Were not saying you should never disinfect your home, but were encouraging consumers to go back to basics for cleaning, with less of a focus on disinfection and more on non-toxic cleaners and a little elbow grease.

WVE has posted its entire report -- and tips on making non-toxic cleaning products -- on its Web site.

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