Study: Almost Every Cleaning Product Releasing Toxic Chemicals

According to a new study, almost every cleaning product used in the home may release hundreds of possibly toxic chemicals when they are used.

Researchers at the Environmental Working Group tested 30 household products, including stain removers, air fresheners, and glass cleaners. 

They said all the cleaners except one released measurable levels of unstable compounds, or VOCs — tiny toxins linked to asthma, fertility problems, and cancers when inhaled. Ten products released chemical levels that were so high they breached European safety standards, and the VOCs continued to linger in the air for as long as four hours.

They said even some “green” products — that made claims to be environmentally friendly and safer — released hazardous levels of VOCs.

The researchers added that the study was a “wake-up call” for consumers and said people needed to be ‘more aware’ of cleaning products’ risks.

All-purpose cleaners were four of the worst ten products. Five were a mixture of floor, carpet, and glass cleaners, and one was an air freshener.

A senior toxicologist at the EWG, Dr. Alexis Temkin, said, “This study is a wake-up call for consumers, researchers, and regulators to be more aware of the potential risks associated with the numerous chemicals entering our indoor air.”

“Our findings emphasize a way to reduce exposure to hazardous VOCs — by selecting products that are ‘green,’ especially those that are ‘green’ and ‘fragrance-free.'”

For the study published in the journal Chemosphere, scientists bought the most popular cleaning products sold online at stores, including Amazon, Home Depot, and Walmart, between December 2019 and May 2022. 

Fourteen of the products claimed on their packaging they were “green,” and therefore, environmentally friendly and less toxic.

Each product is sprayed onto a glass sheet inside a sealed chamber and then wiped off around a minute later to mimic how they are utilized in the home.

One full spray was applied for disinfectant and glass sprays, while carpet cleaners and stain removers were sprayed twice, and mopping cloth and wipe products were used until the surface was visibly wet. Air freshener sprays were sprayed five times. 

The air inside the chamber was tested over four hours for the presence of VOCs. According to the study, 530 total VOCs were released by all the combined products.

Of those, 193 were considered hazardous for human health according to the EWG after reviewing European and Californian standards. 

In comparison, estimates suggest a minimum of 400 VOCs in cigarette smoke. 

The study is only a tiny snapshot of the hundreds of household cleaning products for sale in the U.S.

There are hundreds of household cleaning products for sale in the U.S. — with a total market value of $7.73 billion in 2023. The study captured only a small snapshot of all those available.

Researchers have also known for years that cleaners are more likely to suffer from asthma and respiratory problems than others — which has been linked to frequent regular exposure to cleaning products. 

A senior scientist at the Environmental Working Group, Dr. David Andrews, said, “There is no established safe exposure value to limit for VOCs, nor are there specific health-based regulations for VOC emissions from cleaning products. Some VOCs are much more hazardous than others, but which VOCs or VOC mixtures are causing the most harm hasn’t been established.”

“Our results found that about half of the total VOC emissions was from chemicals that have not established safe exposure levels even in an industrial setting,” said Andrews.

“In the absence of clear research that identifies what chemicals are causing health harm, it is prudent to reduce total VOC exposure,” he added.

According to the study, conventional products emitted the most VOCs out of all 30 products, with HDX glass cleaner, Lestoil heavy-duty multi-purpose cleaner, and Scott’s liquid gold word care the worst offenders.

On the other hand, they said green products emitted about half as many VOCs; however, some still exceeded European levels of potential harm to health.

The cleaners categorized as fragrance-free or green released four times fewer than green products and the lowest number, or almost eight times fewer than conventional products. 

Only one product, baby unscented Dr. Bronner’s pure-castile soap, didn’t release any VOCs.

Two of the most harmful VOCs recorded among the products were isopropanol and 2-butoxyethanol. They kill microorganisms, oils, and grease and remove stains.

According to the American Lung Association, VOCs can cause damage when breathed in over a long period and irritate the nose, eyes, lungs, and throat. A 2021 study also found that VOCs can increase the risk of someone developing conditions, including asthma.

Prior studies have shown that 2-butoxyethanol can irritate the nose, eyes, and ears, leading to runny nose, coughing, and headache, while isopropanol is known to cause itching, skin rash, and dry skin.

Additional ingredients used in cleaning products, including parabens, alkylphenols, and phthalates, have been previously linked to breast cancer, according to Breast Cancer Prevention Partners.

Research has shown previously that cleaners — who are exposed regularly to these products — are more likely, by 50 percent, to develop asthma. Women in the field also have an increased risk of lung cancer. 

Some studies also suggest that using particular indoor cleaners in homes with children can increase the risk of youngsters developing asthma.

Scientists say VOCs can harm the environment, contributing to outdoor air pollution.