Environmental Defence Canada issued a report this month on their study of potentially hazardous volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in household cleaning products. With 22 pages of text it’s a bit of a read (and tends to have alarmist undertones), but it has some interesting findings so I am using it to start off my discussion on green cleaners.
The study tested the air quality of 14 volunteers’ kitchens before and after cleaning. Nine volunteers were given conventional cleaners, three were given certified green products, and two were given products with self-proclaimed green qualities. The quality testing before and after air cleaning demonstrated that the increase in VOC levels after using conventional products was three times more than with green cleaners.
It’s important to note that although green products contributed less VOCs than their conventional counterparts, they were not free of VOCs. Natural doesn’t automatically mean harmless – for example, terpenes are derived from plant oils but can react with ground-level ozone (i.e. from car exhaust) to form formaldehyde (a carcinogen). The report was vague on whether the ozone levels found in typical indoor air were enough to react with terpenes but hinted that summer smog days are a particular concern.
My take on it is this: VOCs are released when we use cleaning products. It is not yet clear whether this kind of VOC exposure, combined with other sources such as vehicle exhaust, paints, furniture, and fabrics, is harmful (Environmental Defence Canada indicates that VOCs are a major contributor to poor indoor air quality, and are linked to asthma – or, more likely, can trigger asthmatic symptoms). Because VOC exposure is typically low and slow (i.e. chronic), and health impacts are long-term, research is ongoing and as yet inconclusive. However, the research conducted to-date has satisfied Health Canada, who approves products for consumer use.
So if it’s unclear whether or not VOCs from conventional products are harmful, and Health Canada has deemed all products sold as safe, are green products really worth it? The way I see it, even if the levels emitted from conventional products during consumer use are found to be safe, should we be supporting products that include chemicals that are toxic at the point of manufacture? And while studies show that individual products have negligible health and environmental impacts, what about the combined impact of millions of consumers using cleaners that end up in our water systems? I believe these are the questions we should be asking manufacturers, both of conventional and green products.
Tips to Go Green
If you do choose green products, the fastest way to select ones without having to research ingredients is to look for those with third party certifications like EcoLogo and Green Seal. Or, to save money, try making your own cleaners. Some recipes use ingredients you likely already have, like vinegar and baking soda. If DIY isn’t your thing, check out EWG’s products listing. Environmental Defence Canada also has a top 10 ingredients to avoid shopping guide.
Do you have a favourite green cleaner or cleaner recipe? Let me know!