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Scientists issue warning about supposedly safer home cleaning products: 'Many consumers are being misled'

"For so many products on the supermarket shelves, green doesn't mean clean."

"For so many products on the supermarket shelves, green doesn't mean clean."

Photo Credit: iStock

A new study shows that "green" cleaning products aren't necessarily safer or cleaner than their conventional counterparts. 

What happened?

According to SciTech Daily — which reported on the study published in the journal Environmental Science: Processes & Impact — researchers found that scented green cleaning products release harmful chemicals called volatile organic compounds that can cause breathing issues and eye, nose, throat, and skin irritation and impair indoor air quality. 

The Environmental Protection Agency stated that VOC concentrations can be up to 10 times higher indoors than outdoors and may stay in the air long after the products are used. 

When researchers compared the VOC composition of 10 regular and 13 green cleaners, they found the eco-friendly varieties released more monoterpenes. While they are found in nature, monoterpenes in cleaners can react with ozone particles indoors, which can cause health issues with long-term exposure, per House Digest

The study did not publish the names of the 13 cleaners, or which were deemed to be safer, but the strong implication from the study was that the use of fragrance chemicals was a major cause for the VOCs. While there are no guarantees with any product purchases, unscented cleaners from eco-friendly brands with a good reputation and transparent ingredient lists may be safer.

Corporations usually advertise green products as safer, healthier, and more environmentally friendly than conventional products. But in this case, while there may be some marginal environmental benefits to substituting some of the ingredients with plant-based ones, it's closer to greenwashing if the product is actually worse for air quality and human health. 

"Our research found there is no strong evidence to suggest that clean green products are better for indoor air quality compared to regular products," Ellen Harding-Smith, a University of York Environmental Chemistry researcher from the Department of Environment & Geography, said in a news release.

"In fact, there was very little difference. Many consumers are being misled by the marketing of these products which could be damaging the air quality in their homes as a result — potentially putting their health at risk. For so many products on the supermarket shelves, green doesn't mean clean," she added.

Why is this concerning?

When corporations aren't transparent with customers, they have more power to continue destructive practices without being held accountable. 

As the researchers said, exposure to harmful chemicals released from so-called green cleaning products can cause serious health problems over time.

"Green" fragranced cleaning products may emit secondary pollutants, such as formaldehyde and peroxyacyl nitrates, which can cause poor respiratory health. Repeated exposure to formaldehyde can cause cancer in some cases, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention,

In addition, the United States Geological Survey explained that VOCs are a significant contributor to groundwater pollution, which can pose health risks for people who depend on wells for drinking water.

What can be done about it?

Researchers called for improved regulations on cleaning products, highlighting the obligation companies have to keep consumers safe.

"Manufacturers really need to be so much clearer about what's in these products and make clear how to mitigate their harm. For example, just improving ventilation and opening windows when using these cleaning products makes air quality at home so much better," Harding-Smith said. 

In addition, you can make plenty of natural cleaning products at home that are more truly "green," such as baking soda and Sal Suds for a bleach alternative or old-fashioned vinegar and water

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