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Question: I just found out that the products I have been using to clean my home are toxic! Have I damaged my health by using these products?
Answer: First of all, what is meant by toxicity? Somewhere on the order of 70,000 different chemicals have been identified as toxic. A chemical produces a toxic effect at concentrations that alter the normal state of the organism. For many chemicals, there is a dose at which there are no toxic effects, there is a dose at which the effects are reversible, and there is a dose at which the effects may have permanent consequences. An example of some toxic chemicals that many of us are exposed to regularly are caffeine, tobacco, and alcohol. At doses normally consumed by the average person, the "high" effect felt by the individual response can be quite different. One person may be able to drink 5 cups of coffee with out visible effects, while another person might get the shakes after 2 cups of coffee. This is an example of how the dose and response varies from one person to the next. At some point, each of these chemicals can have a much more serious effect on the individual. At extremely high doses (much higher than the average person can consume on a regular basis), caffeine can be a mutagen (capable of making changes at the cellular level), a potential teratogen (capable of affecting the fetus) and a probable carcinogen as well. At high doses, nicotine, the active ingredient in tobacco, can be a very potent poison causing nausea, vomiting, convulsions, and even death. And, at high doses, alcohol can cause birth defects, brain damage, coma, and death.
These are examples of toxic chemicals that as a society some have evaluated the benefit versus the risk, and have made a conscious decision to continue their exposure to these toxic chemicals, despite the known risks.
So the issue is not whether a chemical is toxic, it is the nature of the toxicity, and whether there is a less toxic alternative which, when used with the proper precautions, can have the same result. Household cleaning products are definitely an area where we can exercise some choice over the degree of toxicity we expose ourselves and our families.
If you examine the label of containers for household cleaners carefully, you will note that many provide safe handling procedures. These procedures are to help minimize your exposure to the hazards of the product. Some procedures are hazardous because they can be irritating to skin or mucous membranes; some products are poisonous when swallowed; some can cause dizziness, headache, and nausea when used in an unventilated area (such as a bathroom); and some can produce toxic by-products when mixed with other cleaning products. One thing to bear in mind, cleaning products are not persistent in their environment. That is, once you have used the product, capped it off, rinsed appropriately, and otherwise completed your cleaning task, the hazard has dramatically diminished. For most products, the hazard exists only during the use of the product, not afterward. That means that if you use the products properly during a period of time that other members of your family are away, their exposure will be negligible. If you continue to detect the odor of the cleaning agent after you are done (ammonia, for example, can be particularly pungent), use vents and fans to help move the inside air out, and to bring in fresh air from the outside.
If you are concerned about the toxicity of the products that you are currently using, make a comparison of that product with other similar products. For a product such as disinfectant to do its job requires it to have some toxic properties. Take a look at the products you now use and evaluate the ones that make you uncomfortable. If the ingredients of those products are not listed, call the manufacturer and request an ingredient list (see question on finding out the hazards of household products).
In summary, the level of toxicity of a product is dependent on the dose of the product you are exposed to. Used properly, most household products are reasonably safe and not a significant health risk. However, used improperly, or in excessive doses (as is possible if you use cleaning products for living), the potential for a product to have an impact on your health increases. It is up to you to decide which products provide a benefit which justifies a short term exposure to their risks, and which products can be replaced with products of lower toxicity.