Common Household Cleaners Can Boost Indoor Pollution, Study Finds

June 18, 2015 Updated: June 17, 2015

OTTAWA—A half-hour kitchen clean-up using common household cleansers, wipes and sprays dramatically boosts harmful indoor air pollution, according to a new study by an environmental advocacy group.

Concentrations of volatile organic compounds more than doubled in nine homes during the experiment by Environmental Defence, while the air quality in 12 of the total 14 households involved was above the level that some jurisdictions consider safe.

Volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, can cause irritation to the eyes, nose and throat, cause headaches, skin problems and asthma and are considered especially harmful to youngsters. Some of the compounds are linked to cancer.

“There’s also evidence that pregnant women are especially susceptible because there’s a link between lower birth rates and lower IQ and VOC exposures in the pre-natal period,” Maggie MacDonald, the group’s toxics program manager, said in an interview Wednesday.

“We found that the most popular cleaning products in Canada really made the VOCs much higher than some of the eco-certified products we looked at.”

No standards have been set in Canada for indoor concentrations of VOCs, nor has the government issued regulations to ensure all ingredients are included on cleaning product labels.

Environment Canada said Wednesday it published a consultation document on VOCs in January 2013 after speaking with “key stakeholders from industry and environmental groups” about regulating the compounds.

The government, spokeswoman Melanie Quesnel said in an email, is trying to ensure “the final regulations are balanced in protecting the health of Canadians and allowing manufacturers of consumer products to operate competitively in the North American marketplace.”

Quesnel would not say when proposed regulations will be made public.

Environmental Defence, a leading advocate in the successful push to ban bisphenol A in baby bottles and phthalates in toys, used a German standard for VOC concentrations in the air as the benchmark in its latest study.

Fourteen Ontario households had their air tested the day before the kitchen cleaning and then again for a two-hour period during and after the cleaning. Some homeowners were given popular wipes, cleansers and glass sprays to use, some used products with non-verifiable “green” claims and two used certified green products.

The results showed an average 120 per cent increase in VOC pollutants after using common cleaners, an average 100 per cent increase for unverified products and a 35 per cent increase for the certified products, which listed all their ingredients on the label.

MacDonald said laboratory research has been done on cleaning products, but scientists in Denmark suggested a real world study would be useful because chemicals react with other household air pollutants and because people use cleaners in different ways and quantities.

“There was a lot of variation from house to house, which is one of the things regulators have to take into account,” she said.

To put the findings in perspective, the report found the average level of volatile organic compounds in homes using the common cleaners was slightly higher than a nail salon and marginally lower than inside a brand-new car.

The compounds break down at different rates, and homes have different ventilation, so it is difficult to say how long the VOCs hang around. The tests were done in winter, when homes are tightly shut up—which is the way Canadians live for much of the year.

“Ventilation is really key to healthy indoor air,” said MacDonald.