The Choice Between Traditional and "Green" Cleaning Products - Environmental or Health Concerns?

This article is the first of a series of two extracted from the publication "Cleaning Agents: The Divide - Human Friendly vs Environmentally Friendly" by T.C. Yeomans, N. McKeon, J. McKeon and E.B. Mitchell, which appeared in the cleaning technology journal Tenside Surfactants Detergents (issue 02/2010, pages 81 - 86). Read part two here.

cleaning productsConcurrent with the rapid development of cleaning products during the 20th Century was the increased reporting of skin complaints related to these cleaners. Although cleaning products were acknowledged to be useful and necessary, by the 1970s a shift in the sought after qualities of household detergents led to mild products becoming the ideal.

The mode of action of traditional household cleaners is based mainly on synthetic chemicals. While these products are very effective, they have been associated with numerous health and environmental effects. The main side effects of cleaning products include irritation of the eyes and of upper and lower airway mucous membranes, however skin irritation is often the principle side effect as this organ is the main area of contact. The toxic nature of some traditional household cleaning products is due to constituents such as ammonia, solvents and sodium hypochlorite, all of which have been associated with skin irritation, lung irritation or airway problems. Fragrance, a complex product made up of numerous chemicals and a constituent of many cleaners, was voted Allergen of the Year, 2007 by the American Contact Dermatitis Society.

The general poulation have an understanding of the toxicity of traditional household cleaners. A 2008 survey of 1000 American mothers revealed that 61% agreed that fumes from cleaners bothered them and 81% agreed that household cleaning products may trigger asthma in children and adults. Indeed this understanding may be one of the factors leading people to become more environmentally responsible. A residential purchasing behaviour survey of King County in Washington demonstrated that greater than half of the inhabitants were "choosing less toxic household cleaning products" and approximately four in ten were "considering the environmental impact of [their] purchase decision".

With the move towards environmentally friendly products, the "green" market has expanded rapidly, for example green sales in supermarkets increased by 170% in 2007/08. While the large increase in consumers purchasing green products is clear, the reasons they have for doing so may vary. The results of a Haystack Group Survey and Mintel survey illustrated that the biggest motivator for adopting green practices was health, with 40% of respondents citing allergies as a reason for buying eco-friendly products. Indeed, the environment was not a primary concern among those surveyed. Therefore, even though respondents acknowledge that "green" is synonymous with environmental responsibility, they were more likely to adopt green practices out of personal health concerns rather than out of concern for the environment.

Although consumers appear to have formed the impression that green products are also beneficial for health, the reality is that there are constituents in some green cleaning products that may cause irritancy or inhalation difficulties for those suffering from asthma and allergies. Environmentally friendly cleaning product ingredients such as coconut derived surfactants (eg sodium lauryl sulphate and cocamide DEA) have been associated with contact dermatitis, contact allergies and skin irritation. Fragrances, whether derived from natural or synthetic sources may still cause allergic contact dermatitis as well as respiratory irritation. Therefore it is not always the case that green products are health friendly to sensitive individuals, as it is still possible that constituents of green cleaners may have adverse consequences in such people.

To control asthma and allergies, sufferers and their families are advised to discourage pets and to reduce dust and mold levels in the home. An effective cleaner is necessary to achieve this. It is important to emphasise that there is little point to a cleaning product that is harmless to the consumer but is inadequate in its cleaning performance. There is a need for products that are effective and healthy for both the environment and the consumer. However the balance of these characteristics is not easy and the action of third party certification to control these matters would be vital.

The article above is the first of a series of two extracted from the publication "Cleaning Agents: The Divide - Human Friendly vs Environmentally Friendly" by T.C. Yeomans, N. McKeon, J. McKeon and E.B. Mitchell, which appeared in the cleaning technology journal Tenside Surfactants Detergents (issue 02/2010, pages 81 -86).

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airmid healthgroup ltd is an Irish based biotechnology company that specialises in indoor air solutions. airmid has a unique multidisciplinary team of Clinicians, Industrial Hygienists, Occupational Health Advisers, and Specialist Laboratory Scientists in Mycology, Virology, Bacteriology, Allergy and Immunology. airmid engages in indoor air monitoring and consultancy services, applying scientific and technical advances in health based life sciences to a range of services for product manufacturers, retailers and other groups. All these activities are supported by airmid's vertically integrated world leading laboratories.

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