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Potentially carcinogenic chemicals more associated with conventional cleaning products, but also with some “green” products

Previous research has suggested that some cleaning products may contain toxic chemicals. New work from UC researchers adds further and more in-depth evidence, with data from both in-home, real life cleaning scenarios as well as laboratory tests. Switching to green cleaning products significantly reduced emissions of toxic chemicals but some cause for concern remains.

A group of University of California researchers, including those associated with UC Berkeley’s Center for Environmental Research and Children’s Health (CERCH), measured air concentrations of potentially hazardous volatile and semi-volatile organic compounds (VOCs and SVOCs, respectively) released from both traditional and green cleaning products in both in-home settings and a controlled laboratory setting. The study was led by author Lucia Calderon, a former graduate student researcher at CERCH and a current project coordinator for community-engaged research at UCSF. The study focused on “chemicals that might increase women’s risk of breast cancer, including possible carcinogens, reproductive/developmental toxicants, or endocrine disruptors.”

The study—part of the Lifting Up Communities by Intervening with Research (LUCIR) Study (principal investigator: Dr. Kim Harley, associate adjunct professor of Maternal, Child, and Adolescent Health at Berkeley Public Health)—found a correlation between the use of both conventional and “green” cleaning products and higher concentrations of VOCs emitted into the air. Seventy-five percent of the highest VOC emissions were emitted by conventional cleaning products, but researchers also identified some VOC emissions of concern from green products.

“Many people assume that cleaning more often and with stronger products (and often stronger smelling products), results in a healthier home,” said James Nolan, study co-author, formerly a CERCH community science manager and currently a community engagement program manager at UCSF’s Western States Pediatric Environmental Health Specialty Unit. “However, household cleaning products contain chemicals of significant concern that could potentially have negative impacts on their health in the long term.”

Further, when health-conscious consumers purchase “green” cleaning products, they may expect them to be free of harmful chemicals. However, there is no official regulatory standard for what “green” means— or governmental process to enforce it—so consumers may be exposed to some chemicals of concern even while using products labeled as “green” or “natural.”

As women are the primary cleaners in the home environment, and Latina women make up the vast majority of professional house cleaners in California, the research team was concerned with increased risk of breast cancer and other reproductive harm as a result of exposure to toxic chemicals.

“Exposure may contribute to larger health inequities,” Nolan said. “Impacts may be even greater for those who are pregnant, or those with young children.” The team suggested precautions, such as using products certified as the EPA’s Safer Choice products, ensuring proper ventilation while cleaning, and using personal protective equipment.

The team found that air concentrations of certain VOCs and SVOCs, like chloroform and carbon tetrachloride, were higher in the breathing zones of participants while they conducted their normal cleaning routines using conventional cleaning products in their homes. These levels decreased significantly when participants later switched to using only “green” cleaning products.

“Overall, ‘green’ or ‘natural’ products emitted significantly less chemicals of concern,” Nolan said. But the researchers did see elevated levels of some chemicals, specifically fragrance chemicals, associated with use of some “green” cleaning products.

Spanning almost a decade, previous papers from several members of the team at CERCH have focused on Latina teen’s exposures to pesticides and on Latina teen’s exposures to potentially carcinogenic chemicals in personal care products, among other environmental exposures of concern.

The LUCIR Study has been led by Dr. Kim Harley, an associate adjunct professor for maternal, child, and adolescent health at Berkeley Public Health. Previous papers from LUCIR focused on Latina teen’s exposures to pesticides and on potentially carcinogenic chemicals in personal care products.

Co-authors include Lucia Calderon, James E. S. Nolan, Asa Bradman, and Kim G. Harley of the Center for Environmental Research and Children’s Health at UC Berkeley; Randy Maddalena, Marion Russell, and Sharon Chen of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

Access animated public service announcements on these findings.