Think about the roles that the chemicals in things like cigarettes, drugs and pesticides play in the media. The general message is that they are extremely dangerous for our health and that we should avoid contact wherever possible. This is why it shocks a lot of people to discover that the greatest risk of exposure to synthetic organic chemicals comes from within our own homes.
In Australia, the chemicals used in our homes are the least controlled and regulated. This means most Australian households have hundreds of dangerous compounds lurking in their kitchens, bathrooms and laundries that have not been put through adequate (and sometimes any) testing or certification processes. And not only are these potions harmful to ourselves, but the environment is also suffering. Given the poor standard of chemical regulation in Australia it is a fair assumption that we cannot trust industry with our health. We need to take the power back into our own hands by arming ourselves with a little knowledge and acting accordingly. The only way to limit damage to our environment, animals, friends, families and selves is by reducing our exposure to these chemicals and using natural eco-friendly solutions instead.
Why do we use chemicals in products?
Convenience is our generations’ highest priority which has created overwhelming demand for one-stop-shop solutions. To cater for this, ambitious profit-focused companies are developing products that are reliant upon various combinations of highly toxic chemicals (referred to as Volatile Organic Compounds or VOC’s). Already dangerous chemicals then present a whole new set of issues when combined with other cocktails, whether by conscious decision or not (e.g. glass cleaner plus oven cleaner). Toxic ingredients are found in most household cleaning products including all-purpose cleaners, degreasers, polishes, washing powders, shampoos, cosmetics and disinfectants. These chemicals affect us in a number of ways:
- Long-Term Exposure is the most common form of ingestion. On a daily basis we absorb chemicals by respiration, consumption or direct skin contact.
- Acute poisoning (through inhalation or swallowing) is a major issue in Australia and children are at highest risk. The Child Accident Prevention Foundation of Australia has released data stating that every year in Australia 3,500 children under 5 years of age are admitted to hospitals because of poisoning annually, and 5 to 10 of these children die (Australia, 2007).
- Environmental damage. Waterways provide the fastest route for household chemicals to reach and then damage our fragile ecosystems. We then must factor in the damage associated with transportation, manufacture and packaging (individually wrapped dish-washing balls anyone?)
What Effects Can These Chemicals Have?
There are many credible studies that detail the serious side-effects linked to exposure to VOC’s. The Australian Governments Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities (DSEWPC) reports data acknowledging these effects explaining that long-term exposure has been linked to cancer, liver damage, kidney damage, central nervous system damage, fertility problems and birth defects. Short-term exposure or Acute poisoning is strongly tied to eye, nose and throat irritation, headaches, nausea / vomiting, dizziness and the worsening of asthma symptoms (Department of Sustainability, 2009).
Shockingly, there are currently no environmental guidelines for the use of VOC’s. The DSEWPC notes that,
“VOCs are environmentally significant mainly because of their role in the formation of photochemical smog. VOCs can have serious effects on animals, birds and plants (aka The Food Chain) and secondary effects may also occur due to the impact of smog. In liquid form and solutions, VOCs can also affect water and soil”
– Department of Sustainability, 2009
Luckily there are some really easy steps to minimising your part in the chemical industry…
1. Read the label, know the facts
There are no government regulations or legal definitions for words like ‘Non-Toxic’ and ‘Natural’ – so do not blindly trust the label. Companies do not always use full ingredients lists and are legally allowed to disguise chemical names so you need to look for certain keywords. If a label uses any of the following ingredients or terminology avoid the product;
- Phosphates, Nitrates and Chlorines
- ‘Maybe Harmful or Fatal’ or other warnings, cautions and dangers
- If the product is considered hazardous, corrosive or inflammable
2. Buy Environmentally Friendly Products
It is important to note that these labels can still be very misleading. Products made of ‘all natural ingredients’ are often still very toxic, as lots of chemicals can be made naturally. For example, terpene is a carbon compound derived from orange peels, but also reacts with ozone to create formaldehyde – a highly toxic carcinogen (Hubert, 2007). Be careful too of labels claiming to be ‘Organic’ – it is not a legally defined word so you must look for a certification stamp to assure you get what you pay for.
3. Buy Cruelty Free
Manufacturers that test on animals use cruel and barbaric methods to decide whether products are safe for human use. It is completely unnecessary however sadly it is still legal. Always look for the Cruelty Free logo. Logically, if animals are put into mini-gas chambers to test a products toxicity it is not something I want to soak my clothes or kitchen bench in anyway
4. Make Your Own
Making your own products is by far the best solution for you health and the environments too. It is fun, easy and makes me nostalgic for year 8 science class. You can buy in bulk (avoiding lots of packaging), they are non-toxic, effective, save a bucket of money and you can recycle cute old jars and bottles to store them. For recipes for your own cleaners go to our Home and Garden section.
- Australia, C. A. (2007, July 13). Household Chemical Safety. Retrieved September 20, 2010, from New South Wales Fire Brigade: http://www.nswfb.nsw.gov.au/page.php?id=300
- Department of Sustainability, E. W. (2009, September 16). Air toxics and indoor air quality in Australia. Retrieved September 20, 2010, from Australian Governement: http://www.environment.gov.au/atmosphere/airquality/publications/sok/vocs.html
- Hubert, C. (2007). Shade of Green: The big scrub-off: It’s not hard to buy so-called eco-friendly products, but do they work – and really meet the standard. USA: Knight Ridder Tribune Business News.