Did You Know?

Maintaining a clean and sparkling home for improving your families’ health is an excellent goal. With many cleaning products that can be purchased from retail shelves, Canadians today spend about $300 Million per annum on household cleaning products. Most are custom-designed for many different surfaces, materials and rooms, with the goals of eliminating germs, stains, and odours.  The average Canadian household stores 3-25 gallons of cleaning products in their home. However many of the cleaning products that we have learned to trust, can contain ingredients that are harmful to our long-term health and the environment. And it is difficult for the consumer to know what to buy because there is no regulatory requirement for all ingredients to be listed on the label.



When we use household cleaning products to clean our home, the cleaners can volatilize into the air and we breathe them in.  Cleaners also enter our body through absorption via our skin. This can happen while cleaning or later walking/crawling over floors.  Another route of contamination is ingestion, which can occur through residues left on dishes and cutlery, or household dust.

On a typical cleaning day, in a typical Canadian home, levels of chemicals in the indoor air can be hundreds times higher than the outdoor air in the most polluted of cities (Nature of Things 2002). In 2011, Anne Steinman et al, researchers in the US, investigated volatile organic compounds (VOCs) emitted from 25 common fragranced consumer products – laundry products, personal care products, cleaning supplies and air fresheners (1).  “They found 133 different VOCs emitted from the 25 products with an average of 17 VOC’s per product.  Of the 133 VOCs, 24 are classified as toxic or hazardous under Federal US law, and each product emitted at least one of these compounds.  For “green” products, emissions of these compounds were not significantly different from the other products.  Of all VOC’s identified, only one was listed on any product label, and only two were listed on any Material Safety Datasheet (MSDS).”

Many of the ingredients in household cleaners are harmful to our health. Some will bioaccumulate in our bodies, since they are not purged, and over time can accumulate to toxic levels in the body. When we rinse household cleaners down the drain, we release these toxic chemicals to the aquatic environment, harming the health of our lakes, rivers and streams.  Ultimately the water is returned to us in the form of drinking water, further exposing us to toxic chemicals.  Particularly at risk are children with developing systems, cancer survivors, elderly, asthmatics and those with weak immune systems.



Product warning labels can be useful as a first line of defense.  The hazard sign labels on household chemicals are designed to warn us of a single use or short-term exposure.  The picture tells you of the danger, and the shape of the frame around the hazard tells you what part of the product is hazardous:

If it’s a triangle, it means the container is dangerous.

If it’s an octagon, it means the contents are dangerous.


Symbol Danger Description
explosive EXPLOSIVE The container can explode if heated or punctured. Flying pieces of metal or plastic from the container can cause serious injury, especially to your eyes.
 corrosive CORROSIVE The product can burn your skin or eyes. If swallowed, it can damage your throat and stomach.
 flammable FLAMMABLE The product or its fumes will catch fire easily if it is near heat, flames or sparks.
 poison POISON If you swallow, lick or breathe in the chemical, you could become very sick or die.


Cleaning products are required by law to include label warnings if harmful ingredients are included.  From safest to most dangerous, the warning signals are:

  1. Caution – One ounce to one pint may be harmful or fatal to a 180-pound male
  1. Warning – One teaspoon to one ounce may be harmful or fatal to a 180-pound male
  1. Danger – One taste to one teaspoon is fatal to a 180-pound male




But there is no requirement in Canada for manufacturers to warn consumers about the health and environmental hazards associated with chronic, or long-term, exposure to chemical ingredients in household cleaning products.  Typically chemicals have been studied on an individual basis, and we have yet to understand the effects of multiple chemicals in combination or mixtures. Most of us are exposed to cleaning products and their residues at low levels on a daily basis.  Ingredients that are of concern for long-term health are classified as:

Carcinogens – Carcinogens cause cancer and/or promote cancer’s growth. Some examples of common carcinogens in cleaning supplies include; formaldehyde, paradichlorobenzene, toluene, xylene, and perchloroethylene.

Endocrine disruptors – Endocrine disruptors interfer with the body’s endocrine system, by mimicking human hormones and confusing the body with false signals.  Disruption of the endocrine system can occur in various ways. Some chemicals mimic natural hormones such as growth hormone or insulin, providing them at improper times. Others can block the effects of a hormone from certain receptors and still others directly stimulate or inhibit the endocrine system and cause overproduction or underproduction of hormones, such as the thyroid. These disruptions can cause:

Cancerous tumors – breast, prostate, thyroid and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma

Birth defects – deformations of the body (including limbs), and miscarriage

Developmental disorders – learning disabilities, ADD, cognitive & brain development

Sexual development problems – premature puberty, feminizing of males or masculine effects on females, menstrual problems etc.

There is also strong evidence that chemical exposure has been associated with adverse developmental and reproductive effects on fish and wildlife. The critical period of development for most organisms is between the transition from a fertilized egg into a fully formed infant. As the cells begin to grow and differentiate, there are critical balances of hormones and protein changes that must occur.

Some examples of endocrine disruptors include: dioxin and dioxin-like compounds, polychlorinated biphenyls, DDT and other pesticides, and plasticizers such as bisphenol A, phthalates, and styrene.


Neurotoxins– Neurotoxins are substances that inhibit the functions of neurons, found throughout the brain and central nervous system.  Neuron tasks range from autonomic nervous system jobs like breathing to higher-level brain function. Neurotoxins can act through various different routes with some neurotoxins damaging neurons so that they cannot function. Others attack the signaling capability of neurons; block releases of various chemicals, interfere with transmission reception, and get neurons to send false signals. Or a neurotoxin may destroy neurons.  Neurotoxin exposure can lead to: nausea, dizziness, loss of motor control, brain function, paralysis, difficulty with vision, seizures, stroke and coma.
Neurotoxin examples include: snake bite, lead, ethanol, nitric oxide, d-limonene, formaldehyde, methylene chloride, monoethanolamine, styrene, and xylene.  Blue algal blooms or green scum washed up on shore may contain cyanobacteria, which can produce toxins like microcystins or hepatoxins.  These can attack the liver and have produced death in dogs, cattle and even humans when the water is ingested.



While many ingredients in cleaners are benign, there are some common ingredients that are considered hazardous.  These are some that you should be aware of:

Acetone – A neurotoxin, acetone may cause liver and kidney damage, and damage to the developing fetus. It is also a skin and eye irritant.
Found in:  spot treatment cleaners, mark and scuff removers, and other products.

Ammonia– Undiluted, ammonia is a severe eye and respiratory irritant that can cause severe burning pain, and corrosive damage including chemical burns, cataracts and corneal damage. It can also cause kidney and liver damage. Repeated or prolonged exposure to vapours can result in bronchitis and pneumonia.  Ammonia will react with chlorinated products (e.g., bleach) to produce highly poisonous chloroamine gas. While ammonia occurs naturally, the use of cleaning products containing this substance can result in higher levels of exposure to vapours than from natural sources.

Found in: window cleaners, drain cleaners, toilet cleaners, bathroom cleaners, oven cleaners, stainless-steel cleaners, car polish, and all-purpose cleaners.

Aerosol products– Aerosol propellants may contain: propane, nitrous oxide,

formaldehyde (carcinogen, neurotoxin and central nervous system depressant),

and methylene chloride (carcinogen, neurotoxin and reproductive toxin).  Aerosol sprays finer particles, which can be more deeply inhaled than larger particles, and may increase their toxic effect.

Bleach (Sodium hypochlorite) – Corrosive chemical, an eye, skin and respiratory irritant, as well as a sensitizer. It may be a neurotoxin and toxic to the liver, and can be fatal if swallowed.  It is acutely toxic to fish. Chlorine in bleach can also bind with organic material in the marine environment to form organochlorine compounds, toxic compounds that can persist in the environment. Never mix bleach with ammonia. 

Found in: a wide range of household cleaners.

2-Butoxyethanol (2-BE, also known as Butyl Cellosolve)

It is a skin and eye irritant, associated with blood disorders. In lab tests, exposure to high doses of 2-BE has been shown to cause reproductive problems. It is defined as a toxic substance under the Canadian Environmental Protection Act, with Health Canada identifying indoor air and skin contact with cleaning products as the main pathways of exposure. Regulations limit the concentration of 2-BE in most household cleaners to 5 or 6 per cent, but higher concentrations are permitted in other products, notably and laundry stain removers (up to 22 per cent).

Found in: glass cleaners, laundry stain removers, carpet cleaners, automobile cleaners, windshield wiper fluid, degreasers, oven cleaners, and rust removers.

Coal tar dyes Derived from petrochemicals, it is listed as a potential carcinogen. Coal dye tars may be contaminated with trace amounts of heavy metals like arsenic, cadmium and lead, which can harm the nervous system and cause other adverse health effects.  Dyes in cleaning products can be absorbed through the skin or ingested through soap residues on dishes. They are completely unnecessary to the cleaning function of the product.

Found in: most types of cleaning products.


D-limonene – The extracted oil of oranges is 90% d-limonene. It is a sensitizer, a neurotoxin, a moderate eye and skin irritant, and can trigger respiratory distress when vapours are inhaled by some sensitive individuals. There is some evidence of carcinogenicity.

Found in:  Active ingredient in some insecticides. Solvent used in many all-purpose cleaning products, especially citrus and orange cleaners. It can be listed on labels as citrus oil and orange oil.


Ethoxylated nonyl phenol, Alkylphenol ethoxylates (APEs). – Eye and skin irritants.  Degrade into nonylphenols (NPs), which can mimic the hormone estrogen. In lab tests, NP shown to stimulate the growth of human breast cancer cells and cause adverse reproductive effects in fish and other aquatic organisms.  Several chemicals in this class are listed as toxic substances under the Canadian Environmental Protection Act.   Environment Canada required companies to develop plans to reduce NPEs in cleaning products (as well as textiles and pulp and paper products) by 95 per cent by the end of 2010, but stopped short of banning these chemicals. As of July 2010, only 63 per cent of manufacturing facilities subject to the planning requirement had met the target, although the use of these chemicals in products has declined significantly.

Found in: liquid laundry detergents, stain removers, all-purpose cleaners, air fresheners, toilet bowl cleaners, degreasers, and car wash products.


Fragrance formulations have remained trade secrets and are not reported by manufacturers on ingredient lists for perfumes, cosmetics or cleaning products, other than as “fragrance”.  The category contains more than 4,000 different chemical substances. Many compounds in “fragrance” are human toxins, including suspected or proven carcinogens, skin irritants and neurotoxins.  In 1989, the US National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health evaluated 2,983 fragrance chemicals for health effects. They identified 884 of them as toxic substances.  For instance, air fresheners contain a potpourri of fragrance chemicals, in some cases cancer-causing benzene and formaldehyde, as well as phthalates and numerous VOCs.
The good news is that, US EPA Dff has developed a new criteria for fragrances, taking effect by the end of 2014. It mandates that no carcinogens, mutagens, or reproductive toxicants (CMRs), and no persistent, bioaccumulative and toxic compounds (PBTs) will be allowed.  Compliance will be confirmed by audits in 2015.

Found in: most types of cleaning products, air fresheners.

 Formaldehyde – is a carcinogen, can damage DNA, and is a central nervous system depressant. Formaldehyde is also a sensitizer, with the potential to cause asthma.  Exposure to formaldehyde may cause joint pain, depression, headaches, chest pains, ear infections, chronic fatigue, dizziness and loss of sleep. While formaldehyde naturally occurs in the human body in minute amounts, it is estimated that 20 per cent of people exposed to it will experience an allergic reaction.
Found in: Used in a wide range of products, including some furniture polishes. Formaldehyde may be released by other chemicals, eg.quaternary 15.

Methylene chloride – Methylene chloride is a carcinogen, a neurotoxin and a reproductive toxin. On inhalation, it can cause liver and brain damage, irregular heartbeat, and even heart attack. It is a severe skin and moderate eye irritant.
Found in: Used in stain removers.

MEA (monoethanalomine), DEA (diethanolamine), TEA (triethanolamine)
It is a moderate skin irritant, and a severe eye irritant. May cause liver, kidney and reproductive damage, as well as depression of the central nervous system. Inhalation of high concentrations – when cleaning an oven for example – can cause dizziness or even coma.  The chemical can also be absorbed through the skin. MEA is known to induce asthma in workplace settings.  It can react with nitrites to form carcinogenic nitrosamines.  Nitrites may be present as preservatives or contaminants in other products, or in some water sources. These ethoxylated alcohols may also be contaminated with 1,4 dioxane, a possible human carcinogen that is persistent in the environment. 1,4-dioxane can be removed during the manufacturing process, but there is no easy way to know if that has occurred.
Found in: liquid laundry detergents, laundry pre-soak, all-purpose cleaners, floor cleaners, car wash products, degreasers, dish soap, oven cleaners, tub & tile cleaner, carpet cleaner and glass and surface cleaners.

Morpholine– Corrosive ingredient can severely irritate, burn skin mucous membranes and eyes, and can cause blindness if splashed in eyes.  Can cause liver and kidney damage, and long-term exposure can result in bronchitis. It reacts with nitrites (added as a preservative in some products, or present as a contaminant) to form carcinogenic nitrosamines.
Found in: Used as a solvent in a number of cleaning products, including furniture polishes and abrasive cleansers.

Naphthalene or Paradichlorobenzene – Suspected carcinogen, and reproductive toxin. It is transported across the placenta and can cause blood damage. It can cause lung, liver and kidney damage, and corneal damage and cataracts. Skin exposure is especially dangerous to newborns.
Found in: Mothballs, Pesticide, pest repellants, deodorizers, urinal blocks.

Parabens– Parabens are hormone disruptors and may cause contact dermatitis in some individuals. Widely used in cleaning products as preservatives, parabens are usually preceded by the prefixes methyl-, ethyl-, butyl-, or propyl.
Found in: Used in detergents, laundry detergents, and bathroom cleaners.

Phosphoric acid – Extremely corrosive, it can severely irritate and burn the skin and eyes. Breathing vapours can make the lungs ache, and it may be toxic to the central nervous system.
Found in: some liquid dishwasher detergents, metal polishes, some disinfectants, and bathroom cleaners, especially those that remove lime and mildew.

Functions as a fertilizer in aquatic systems. High concentrations of phosphates in bodies of water can promote harmful algal blooms and increase weed growth. This can cause oxygen levels in the water to decline, potentially killing fish. Excess algal growth can also plug filtration devices at water treatment facilities and affect the taste and odor of the water, resulting in increased costs of water purification. Certain algae blooms produce chemicals that are toxic to animals and people who drink the water. This was a high-profile public issue three decades ago, when Manufacturers reduced or even eliminated phosphates from laundry products.  But no action has ever been taken on dishwasher detergents, which can contain 30-40 % phosphates and high levels of chlorine-based sanitizing ingredients. New regulations took effect in 2010 that limit phosphorus concentration in household cleaning products to 0.5 per cent — a big improvement.
Found in: dishwasher detergents.

Quaternary Ammonium Compounds (Quats)
Quats are irritants and sensitizers, that can induce an allergic response following contact with the skin. May cause occupational asthma in cleaning workers and preliminary evidence indicates they may cause adverse genetic and reproductive effects. Chemicals in this class are persistent in the environment and toxic to aquatic organisms. Like triclosan, quats are anti-microbial agents and there is concern that their widespread use in household disinfectants and cosmetics is contributing to antibiotic resistant bacteria, thus limiting treatment options for microbial infections. The Canadian Medical Association has called for a ban on antibacterial consumer products.
Found in: bathroom cleaning products, all-purpose cleaners, fabric softeners, and degreasers.

Silica powder
A known human carcinogen, this natural ingredient (made from finely ground quartz) is hazardous as a dust if inhaled.
Found in: abrasive cleaning powders.

Sodium dichloroisocyanurate dehydrate
Corrosive; severe eye, skin and respiratory irritant. It can also form chlorine gas, which will burn the eyes, nose and mouth. Studies have found that high doses of this chemical cause kidney damage. In its concentrated form, this chemical is very toxic to aquatic organisms and may cause long-term effects in aquatic ecosystems.
Found in: toilet bowl cleaners, deodorizers, surface cleaners, and disinfectants.

Sodium hydroxide (lye and caustic soda)
Highly corrosive; can burn the eyes, skin and lungs and is a respiratory irritant. Long-term exposure in the air may lead to ulceration of the nasal passages and chronic skin irritation. If discharged in large quantities, sodium hydroxide can alter the pH of water.  Found in: oven cleaners, bathroom cleaners, disinfectants, drain openers, and toilet bowl cleaners.

Sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS) and Sodium laureth sulfate (SLES)
Sodium lauryl sulfate is a skin irritant and is listed in Environment Canada’s preliminary categorization to review effect on environment. Sodium laureth sulfate is the “ethoxylated” form of this chemical, which is less harsh. However, the process of ethoxylation can leave behind traces of 1,4-dioxane, a possible human carcinogen that is persistent in the environment.
Found in: dish soap, liquid laundry detergents, cleaning towelettes, and toilet bowl cleaners.

Toxic and a suspected endocrine disrupter (mimics or interferes hormones function).  Irritant to the skin and eyes, and toxic to aquatic organisms; may cause long-term adverse effects in the aquatic environment. Triclosan can also react in the environment to form dioxins, which bioaccumulate and are toxic. Triclosan is an anti-microbial agent, adding to concern it is contributing to growth of antibiotic resistant bacteria.
Found in: dish soaps and disinfectants, other household products eg. Toothpaste.

Trisodium nitrilotriacetate
Rated as a possible human carcinogen. In aquatic ecosystems, trisodium nitrilotriacetate can also cause heavy metals in sediment to redissolve and many of these metals are toxic to fish and other wildlife.
Found in: bathroom cleaners and possibly some laundry detergents (more common in industrial formulations).

Toluene – Exposure to toluene may cause liver, kidney and brain damage. It is also a reproductive toxin, which can damage a developing fetus. Low to moderate levels can cause short-term effects such as: tiredness, confusion, weakness, memory loss, nausea, loss of appetite, hearing and color vision loss.

Found in:  furniture polish, floor polish, surface cleaners, laundry starch, spot removers.

Turpentine– This chemical can cause allergic sensitization, and kidney, bladder and central nervous system damage. It is an eye irritant.
Found in: specialty solvent cleaners, furniture polish and shoe products.

Xylene– Xylene can produce significant neurotoxic effects including: headache, fatigue, irritability, nausea, motor incoordination, sensation of increased body heat, tremors, dizziness, confusion, and cardiac irritability. Long term it may damage liver, kidneys and developing fetuses. It is a severe eye and moderate skin irritant.
Found in: some spot removers, floor polishes, ironing aids and other products.