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Safely clean?

Natural or plant-based cleaners might feel healthy and green, but in a largely unregulated market, anything goes.

April 28, 2008|Elena Conis | Special to The Times

Jennifer MARTINE threw a party Thursday night, and her guests brought food, wine -- and empty spray bottles.

Using vinegar, baking soda, essential oils and castile soap, they spent the evening making batches of natural household cleaners. Martine, 28, is one of more than 100 women who've signed up to host so-called green cleaning parties across the country this spring, part of a nationwide campaign led by Women’s Voices for the Earth, a nonprofit group based in Missoula, Mont.

Martine's interest in green cleaning stemmed from reading that mopping agents might harm her new puppy -- and coming home one day to find that her husband had passed out while cleaning their unventilated bathroom. He had been using a combination of products and had hit his head as he fell to the floor. He was just coming to when Martine, a food photographer, returned home to San Francisco.

"It was really scary," she said. Her husband, Tyler, suffered no other problems, but the incident had at least one lasting effect. "I definitely don't buy those strong cleaners anymore," Martine said.

Like her, a growing number of Americans are seeking so-called green cleaners -- products made with natural, nontoxic, biodegradable ingredients. Few consumers may be going the straight DIY route, but sales of natural cleaning products totaled $105 million during the last 12 months, up 23% over the previous 12 months, according to SPINS, a Schaumburg, Ill.-based market research and consulting firm for the natural products industry.

Such cleaners make a variety of claims. Some promise that they contain natural (instead of synthetic) agents, break down quickly in the environment or pose less of a toxic threat to humans and ecosystems than do traditional cleaners. Others say they're concentrated, packaged in recycled or recyclable materials, have never been tested on animals or are free of specific chemicals, such as petroleum distillates, phthalates, phosphates or CFCs. (Never mind that CFCs, proved to deplete the Earth's ozone layer, have been banned for decades.)

Many of them also typically eschew known asthma triggers, common in many household cleaners, such as chlorine bleach and ammonia. Studies of people who work with cleaning products for a living have indeed suggested a link between conventional cleaners and an increased risk of asthma and skin irritation. So-called green cleaners rely on ingredients such as hydrogen peroxide to kill germs and remove stains, as well as citric acid and alkyl polyglucoside, a coconut-based detergent, to break down grease and dirt.

But critics caution that just because the ingredients in green cleaners are plant-based or natural doesn't necessarily mean they're safe. They too can cause skin irritation or trigger allergic reactions -- and in a large enough dose, any ingredient can be toxic.

And though green cleaners may purport to list all ingredients, the market is largely unregulated -- which means consumers still must be wary of what's in the bottle. Even cleaning products labeled "natural" may contain some fraction of synthetic chemicals. Or they may contain natural ingredients consumers would rather avoid, such as petroleum distillates, some of which (namely, benzene) can cause cancer, and all of which come from oil, a nonrenewable (read: environmentally unfriendly) resource.

"This is not a regulated space," said Matt Kohler, brand manager for Green Works, the brand of green cleaners launched by Clorox in January. "Any fly-by-night company can take a drizzle of lemon oil, pour it over a vat of chemicals and call it a natural cleaner."

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Focus on risks to humans

To most shoppers, going green is as much about their own and their family's health as about the health of ecosystems.

It hasn't taken scientific studies to prove that chlorine-based cleaners can irritate the eyes, nose and throat and harm living things. (Chlorine is, after all, employed for its ability to kill germs.) But concern about other ingredients' effects has grown.

In the 1970s, several states, beginning with Illinois, enacted bans on phosphates in laundry detergents. The chemicals, which help produce spot-free glasses and dishes, cause algae to proliferate in lakes, streams, rivers and other bodies of water, eventually depleting the water of oxygen and choking out other marine life. Some states are now passing bans on phosphates in dishwashing detergents too.

In 2006, Wal-Mart announced that it would avoid stocking products that contain nonylphenol ethoxylates, or NPEs. The surfactants, or foaming agents, often found in detergents and other cleaning products, have been found to cause reproductive defects, liver and kidney damage, and death in fish and shellfish. In Canada and the European Union, but not in the U.S., regulations limit the chemicals' use in cleaning products.

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