As a part of an ongoing partnership with Asian Americans for Equality and the Go Green Western Queens Fund, the Human Impacts Institute (HII) partnered headed to Jackson Heights in Queens, NY, on a cool Sunday in November. At the offices of Adhikaar HII lead a workshop on non-toxic cleaners to an audience of mostly Nepali women. Adhikaar, meaning rights in Nepali, is a New York-based nonprofit organization working with Nepali-speaking communities to promote human rights and social justice for all. The women and a few men in attendance are primarily domestic workers, meaning they work in homes, usually as nannies and housekeepers.
The majority of the domestic workers use the cleaners their employers keep in the house. As they shouted out the names of the cleaners they utilize, we proceeded to look them up on the Environmental Working Group’s Guide to Healthy Cleaners (www.ewg.org/guides/cleaners) and the results were shocking:
Fantastik Antibacterial All-Purpose Cleaner ($4.29 32 oz.) – Grade: F
Lysol All Purpose Cleaner ($5.59 32 oz.) – Grade: D
Windex Crystal Rain Glass Cleaner ($4.29 26 oz.) – Grade: D
Comet Disinfectant Cleanser Powder with Bleach ($3.99 21 oz.) – Grade: F
Clorox Disinfectant Bathroom Cleaner ($4.49 30 oz.) – Grade: F
Ajax Multi-Purpose Cleaner ($3.89 32 oz.) – Grade: F
Tide Liquid Detergent ($9.39 40 oz.) – Grade: F
Cascade Dishwashing Detergent, powder or liquid ($6.49 75 oz.) – Grade: F
Pine-Sol Multi-Surface Cleaner ($3.59 28 oz.) – Grade: D
Soft Scrub Total All-Purpose with Bleach ($5.68 32 oz.) – Grade: F
Scrubbing Bubbles Antibacterial Bathroom Cleaner ($4.48 25 oz.) – Grade: F
Most have poor grades due to the fact that the product may contain ingredients with potential for respiratory illness, skin allergies, reproductive toxicity, cancer, or environmental damage. So on a daily/weekly basis, most of these workers are exposing themselves to dangerous toxins as well as the families or people that reside or work in these spaces.
This was the first major take-away from the workshop—to educate the primary users of cleaning products that many can be harmful and how/where to research specific products. (Note: there are many other databases such as Good Guide that rate products, but beware that not all databases are created equal!) The second key objective was helping them know their rights as domestic workers and how they could talk to their employers about replacing harmful cleaners.
Indoor Air Quality (IAQ) is very important since most Americans spend much more time indoors than outdoors. Considering that, it is alarming that indoor air pollution levels can be 100 times higher than outdoor air pollution levels according to the US EPA. So what can you do about the IAQ in your home?
First, do a Toxins Assessment by making a list of the products that are used commonly in your space and look them up in the EWG or other database. (Remember to avoid the ones listed above since they all scored D’s or F’s.) Next do a Needs Assessment—list your cleaning needs (e.g. Bathroom, Kitchen, Floor Care, Furniture Polish, etc.). One of the easiest ways to reduce toxins in your home (and save money) is to use LESS cleaners; You’d be amazed how many uses you can find for a good, safe all-purpose cleaner. Then, if you find you have poorly rated cleaning products, do some research to look up Healthy Alternatives (on EWG’s site, each poorly rated product will have a link entitled “Search for a better _____” (e.g. laundry detergent)). Finally, if you decide to purchase healthier alternatives, keep simple Non-toxic Shopping Tips in mind when replenishing cleaning products. Or if you prefer to make your own non-toxic cleaners using simple (and edible!) ingredients, look up DIY Recipes (we have a few listed in this blog post).
Non-toxic Shopping Tips
When in doubt, look on the BACK of the product label and certain keywords indicate the product is dangerous: POISON, DANGEROUS, TOXIC, HARMFUL IF SWALLOWED, WARNING
Beware of greenwashing – Just because a product has any of the following keywords, it doesn’t mean it is environmentally friendly or health friendly. There isn’t adequate legislation on claims made, so be careful. Keywords include ALL NATURAL (may contain natural but hazardous substances), HYPO-ALLERGENIC (doesn’t require testing), ENVIRONMENTALLY FRIENDLY (there is no verifiable certification), ORGANIC (no verifiable certification unless you see the symbol ), CERTIFIED (false claims)
Look for light packaging made from post-consumer recycled materials
Look for reusable packaging and/or recyclable in your area! Look for products that are plant-derived
Look for fragrance-free. Look for phosphate-free. If bleach is required, look for chlorine-free bleach.
Do It Yourself!
Use simple, inexpensive DIY recipes using ingredients like soap, baking soda, boric acid, white vinegar, lemon juice, club soda, vegetable oil, microfiber cloths, scrubbing stone (chemical-free) and add a few drops of your favorite scent of real essential oil like Peppermint, Lavender, Eucalyptus or any other!
Follow one of these easy recipes to make safe cleaners:
All Purpose Cleaner, For approximately 30 oz. In a spray bottle combine: 3 tsp baking soda, 1.5 tsp liquid soap, 10 drops essential oil (optional). Fill with water and shake.
Glass Cleaner, For approximately 30 oz. In a spray bottle combine: 1.5 cup white vinegar, 10-20 drops essential oil (optional). Fill with water and shake.
Wood Cleaner, For approximately 30 oz. In a spray bottle combine: 1.5 cup white vinegar, 1 tsp liquid soap, 1.5 cup vegetable oil, 10-20 drops essential oil (optional). Fill with water and shake.
We hope this information will empower you to create a safe indoor environment for you and your loved ones. The domestic workers that attended our workshop were very grateful for the knowledge and earned a Certificate of Completion that they can show their employers in the future when discussing IAQ. Buying safe products or making your own cleaners is the first step. Your purchasing power is strong, but also consider talking with your government representatives to increase legislation on companies’ disclosure of dangerous chemicals (many ingredients are not even listed on the ingredient label!) or help them work to eliminate harmful ingredients altogether. It is unfortunate that the burden of consumer safety lies with the consumer and not corporations or the government, but until things start to change, keep yourself informed, safe and healthy using the tools and tips we’ve discussed above. Happy cleaning!
Rachana Patel, Human Impacts Institute Environmental Education Intern