News & Events

Ways to reduce toxic exposures in the home

From the Massachusetts Nurse Newsletter
April 2004 Edition

By Peggy Wolff, MS, APRN, HNC

Nurses are increasingly aware of their exposure to toxic materials in the workplace, and these materials can include latex gloves, powerful disinfectants, harsh cleaning products and pesticides. While change to less toxic products is happening, nurses continue to be exposed to hazardous chemicals. Unfortunately, most of us know at least one nurse who has become sick, sometimes permanently, from chemical exposures in a hospital or health care facility.

Because nurses are exposed to so many chemicals at work, it is vitally important that nurses reduce chemical exposure at home—or, as environmental health experts say—reduce their "total body load."

Total body load is made up of biological factors like mold, bacteria, dust, pollen and foods; chemical factors like lead, ozone, chlorine, petroleum products, phenols, and formaldehyde; and, physical factors including heat, cold, radon, and electromagnetic fields. When a person’s total body load exceeds its capacity, difficult-to-treat health problems appear. In other words, you don’t just remove some of the load in order to regain your health. Once the total load has been exceeded, it can be a long, slow process to get better…just ask anyone who has developed a chemical injury.

A key way nurses can reduce their total body load and maintain their health is through healthy house cleaning. Chemicals in cleaning products enter the body through respiratory passages and skin so how you clean your house can make a significant health difference in the health of you and your family. Non-toxic house cleaning can be simple, quick and inexpensive.

Guidelines for non-toxic cleaning

  1. Avoid cleaning products containing dyes, perfumes, chlorine, phosphates, ammonia, petroleum-based products and other additives. These additives have strong chemical odors, so they usually are easy to identify. Smells are one way your body recognizes danger. Remember: if it smells like chemicals or perfume, don’t buy it.
  2. Use cleaning cloths, rags or un-dyed cellulose sponges rather than disposable paper products and avoid pre-moistened paper towels and germicidal sponges. Most disposable cleaning products have been processed with chemicals. Remember: use recyclable and chemical-free cleaning materials. You’ll save the trees and your health.
  3. Choose the mildest cleanser that will do the job. Elbow grease is non-toxic and a little extra rubbing or soaking is healthier than chemical cleaning. Remember: the mildest effective cleanser is the best cleanser.
  4. Use the same cleaning products for different jobs. The marketing industry makes us think we need a cupboard full of cleansers to get our homes clean. A non-toxic all purpose cleaner, a soft scrubber, a glass cleaner and a disinfectant/mold cleaner will usually do the trick. Remember: more is not better. Use a few cleaning products to clean your entire home.
  5. Avoid aerosols! Aerosols are harmful because they frequently contain isobutane, butane and propane. In animal studies these chemicals were found to be toxic to the heart and central nervous system. Aerosol sprays also break chemicals into tiny bits, making them easier to inhale deeply and causing great harm to the lungs. Remember: if you want a spray, use a pump not an aerosol.
  6. Homemade cleaning products are simple to make and less costly than commercial products. Remember: most cleaning jobs can be done effectively and safely with unscented soap, hot water, white vinegar and baking soda.
  7. Chemicals that your body can handle if used alone, can cause serious problems when combined with other chemicals. Science is starting to find evidence that combined effects of chemicals may not be 1+1=2, but 1+1= 1,000. Remember: choose cleaning products that contain just a few ingredients.
  8. Labels can be misleading and are designed to sell the product—not to tell the shopper the possible health risks. Remember: even if a product is labeled "safe," "non-toxic," "bio-degradable" or "recyclable," it can cause reactions in people who come in contact with the product. The only way to really know if a product is safe for you is to try the product and trust your experience.
  9. Many household cleaning products have been never tested; those that have been tested are tested on young healthy males. This does not tell the consumer anything about how a product may affect the health of children, sick adults or elders. While I am not a proponent of animal testing, if a product is not tested on animals, it is being tested on you, the consumer. Remember: many products have not been adequately tested, so use them with caution.

Peggy Wolff, RN, APRN, HNC, is in private practice as a psychotherapist, holistic nurse and environmental health consultant. She specializes in working with clients with environmental illnesses and has written extensively on issues of environmental exposures to nurses and other workers.