Our world has become complex beyond our wildest imagination. Only a hundred and fifty years ago, most Americans were farming and working to produce what they needed for everyday survival. Fast forward less than two short centuries and everything has changed. The vast majority of people are far removed from the ingredients and methods that go into producing the items they use on a daily basis: food, personal care products, cleaning agents, you name it. This ignorance has become particularly worrisome when it comes to the increasing quantities of toxins people are exposed to on a daily basis and the rise in the occurrences of serious illnesses, such as cancer.

Helen Chen, a research associate at the Cancer Prevention Institute of California, asserts that, “Cancer rates have definitely gone up in the past twenty years. It is now estimated that one in six people will develop some form of cancer in their lifetime.” Though the exact connections between the presence of toxins and the effects on our health are not always clear, there are certainly strong correlations. Chen sites examples such as the highly publicized case of Naval Camp Lejeune in North Carolina. Exceedingly high-levels of industrial chemicals found in the water have been strongly associated with high rates of rare forms of cancer among people who grew up in the camp as children.

With the growing public awareness about environmental toxins and their impact on health, consumers are becoming increasingly concerned with purchasing products that are more people and environment friendly.

Unfortunately, the safety of a product cannot always be judged at face value. Even products that claim to be free of specific toxic chemicals may still actually contain them. A study released by the California Environmental Protection Agency in April, which tested randomly selected nail care products from salons in San Francisco, found that more than 80% of the products that claimed to be free of hazardous chemicals contained toluene and dibutyl phthalate (known reproductive toxins) as well as formaldehyde (a carcinogen). Even more surprising, many of these supposedly “toxic-free” products actually contained these toxins in higher concentrations than those that didn’t make this claim.

Cleaning products have also been under much scrutiny of late. Another study, conducted by Women’s Voices of the Earth late last year, tested 20 household cleaners from 5 major manufacturers and found that they also contained, among other things, toluene and phthalates as well as the carcinogens 1,4-dioxane and chloroform. Known allergens were also found in products labeled as fragrance-free. None of these chemicals were listed on the product label.

These disturbing examples reveal just how little we often know about the chemical makeup of the products around us. “Unfortunately very few studies of this kind have been conducted, ” says Chen. She stresses the need for more research that can expose the health risks of specific chemicals and for manufacturers to be more transparent with their ingredient lists.

A bright spot in all of this, at least for the cleaning industry, is that many cleaning product manufacturers already voluntarily release product information on their own and other industry websites (e.g. American Cleaning Institute). While this is definitely a step in the right direction, David Thompson, president of the Green Clean Institute, believes that there should be a federal mandate that standardizes methods of disclosing ingredient lists. Currently chemicals are often listed under a variety of names and thus difficult to recognize. Also, listing ingredients on websites may not be enough. Ninety-two percent of participants in Housekeeping Solutions’ 2012 Reader’s Survey reported that they would like to have ingredients listed directly on product labels.

In the commercial cleaning industry, these safety concerns are essential to address, not only for building occupants but also for workers who are around these chemicals on a daily basis.

In their fact sheet “Protecting Workers Who Use Cleaning Chemicals”, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) list essential safe work practices when using cleaning chemicals. These include being familiar with the Material Safety Data Sheet for each cleaning product, not using stronger cleaning agents or a larger amount of a product than is necessary and using microfiber (its highly absorbent properties make it easier to use less product).

Continued awareness among buyers and transparency by chemical manufacturers will help consumers make better decisions about the safest and most effective products for their facility.

Further resources:

The Green Buying Guide for Cleaners from Consumers Union, publisher of Consumer Reports.

“Top Tips to Keep Toxic Chemicals at Bay”Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families lists easy ways reduce the amount of chemicals in your home.