Cleaning Culprits: Products to Avoid

Moderation is the key to safe cleaning, says Phillip Dickey, director and staff scientist for the Washington Toxics Coalition, based in Seattle, Wash. He suggests limiting your use of — and exposure to — harsh household cleaners.

If you do use commercial cleaners, a basic way to gauge the toxicity level of a product is to check out its labeling for red flags. "Danger" or "Poison" are dead giveaways that you're dealing with the most hazardous ingredients. "Caution" or "Warning" labels indicate that a product still poses a moderate risk to your well-being.

Take special care with commercial drain cleaners, oven cleaners and phosphoric acid-based toilet bowl cleaners, which are corrosive and can cause severe burns to any part of your body they come into contact with, says Dickey. [Warning: Call a doctor immediately should this occur.] Solvent-based furniture polishes, which may contain gasoline, kerosene or benzene, can be corrosive, as well.

Products that contain bleach or ammonia present a threat to the lungs and heart because their fumes can irritate the airways. David Steinman and Samuel S. Epstein, M.D., co-authors of The Safe Shopper's Bible (MacMillan USA), warn that chlorine bleach products are especially hazardous when combined with products that contain ammonia or acid, such as bowl cleaners, window cleaners, lye, rust removers, vinegar or oven cleaners.

Dickey recommends using cleaning products that are certified as safe by unbiased testers and certifiers who examine products for their low-toxicity and biodegradability claims.