A Safe House?


February 15, 2007

FELICIA BUSTO-FRAIM always kept her Flushing, N.Y., home clean with traditional brand-name cleaning products like Windex and Fantastik. But her attitude changed the day her daughters’ school switched to environmentally friendly cleaning products.

“You could tell the difference,” said Ms. Busto-Fraim, 37, a former prosecutor who now stays at home to care for her three children. “You didn’t have that disgusting disinfectant smell when you walked into the bathrooms anymore.”

Ms. Busto-Fraim embarked on “a total house makeover” after she saw that there was “no discernable difference” in cleanliness at the Waldorf School of Garden City, a private school on Long Island that her two older daughters, Isabella, 11, and Alessandra, 6, attend.

Out went the scouring powder, disinfectant, toilet bowl cleaner, glass-cleaning spray and laundry detergent that she had always used, never before doubting their safety. “A lot of the cleaning products that we used are ones that our moms used,” she said. “You think, how bad can they be?”

Ms. Busto-Fraim now uses the products used in her daughters’ school, from a nonprofit company called Imus Greening the Cleaning. She likes the ways her home feels. “It smells fresh; it smells healthy,” she said. The one chemical-laden product she has been unable to give up is her stain stick, which she uses to get tough mud and grass stains out of her children’s clothing.

Dusting, mopping and scrubbing with natural dirt-busters is going mainstream. More supermarkets are stocking them and more schools are switching to them, inspiring anxious parents to do the same. Whether the so-called green products, made with more plant-based ingredients, are entirely safe, and capable of creating the perfect haven that some parents struggle to create for their children, remains to be seen.

Cory McKee, 27, a stay-at-home mom of three in Tridell, Utah, started ordering Seventh Generation brand cleaning products online two years ago after learning that her oldest child, now 7, had celiac disease, a gluten intolerance. Ms. McKee said that although the disease is not caused by toxins in the home, dealing with it raised her awareness about other health issues.

“That really woke me up,” Ms. McKee said. “I really need to make sure our home is safe.” She lost confidence in the cleaners she had been using in part because the labels of some products do not list all of their ingredients. That made it impossible to know what her family was being exposed to when she sprayed the windows, she said.

Even when the chemicals are listed, few consumers know what they are. “You are probably not breathing in the best stuff,” Ms. McKee said. “I teach my children: If you can’t pronounce it, don’t use it.”

The label on Seventh Generation bathroom cleaner explains its ingredients: Hydrogen peroxide (the active stain removal agent), biodegradable surfactants (for soil removal), citrus oil (for grease removal) food-grade, nontoxic oxygen stabilizers (to help the hydrogen peroxide last longer), and water. It also lists what is not included: “Free of chlorine, petroleum based solvents, glycol ethers, phosphates, acids, caustics, dyes and perfumes.”

Some schools, hospitals and government agencies are replacing chemical-based cleaning agents with natural alternatives. Since last September, a state law has required schools in New York to use cleaning products that do not contain any carcinogens, reproductive toxins or scents that could aggravate asthma, following some of the standards certified by Green Seal, a nonprofit organization in Washington, D.C., Massachusetts and other states are also encouraging changes in the way public buildings are cleaned.

“It may be triggering parents to think about the products they are using at home,” said Patti Wood, a founder and president of Grassroots Environmental Education, a nonprofit organization in Port Washington, N.Y. Cleaning supplies in the home are a concern, she said, because children crawl on the floor and put their fingers in their mouths, resulting in greater exposure to chemical residues than adults are subject to.

So-called green household cleaning products, once found mainly in health food stores, are increasingly showing up on the shelves of supermarkets, children’s stores and in chain stores including Target and Linens ’n Things. In January, Stop & Shop added Seventh Generation, Method and Imus Greening the Cleaning brand products to 300 supermarkets from New Hampshire to New Jersey. “This is in part a response to what consumers are looking to purchase, and the fact they are asking for more and more of these products,” said Faith Weiner, a spokeswoman for the chain.

Jeffrey Hollender, the chief executive of Seventh Generation, said his company’s expansion into more traditional shopping outlets had begun to “accelerate dramatically,” much as organic foods began showing up in mainstream supermarkets several years ago. Revenue at Seventh Generation, a private company, has grown at least 30 percent a year for more than five years, he said.

The growth may be fueled in part by reports linking chemicals found in cleaning supplies to health problems. A report in April 2006 on indoor air chemistry by the University of California at Berkeley for the California Air Resources Board found that some household cleaners may generate risks by giving off unsafe levels of toxic pollutants.

“Conventional products and conventional cleaning practices have the potential to cause health harm, but not all do,” said William W. Nazaroff, an environmental engineering professor who led the Berkeley study.

That doesn’t mean, he said, that switching to new products is a panacea.

“I haven’t seen any good evidence supporting the idea that something that is being sold as green is really good for the people who are using the products,” Professor Nazaroff said. “There are good intentions but something of a disconnect between our hearts and our heads.”

He said that products that are being marketed as good for the environment often are based on terpenes, chemicals that can be extracted from citrus peels. Combined with ozone, he said, terpenes can form a toxic chemical byproduct like formaldehyde.

“Companies have jumped on the idea that green sells, which it does, and are using partial definitions of what it means to be green,” he said. “There is no regulatory agency that would challenge them.”

Companies that make household products said that the substances they contain are not hazardous, if properly used. Petrell Ozbay, a spokeswoman for S.C. Johnson & Son, makers of Windex, Fantastik, Pledge and other brands, said that traditional cleaners are “safe and effective.” But she said that to give consumers a choice, it is producing versions of Windex that do not contain ammonia. Windex Multi-Surface with Vinegar, which hit the market in 2001, and Windex Antibacterial Multi-Surface Spray and Windex Crystal Rain, introduced last year, are ammonia free.

“It’s a matter of what a consumer prefers to clean with,” Ms. Ozbay said. “We run our products through rigorous testing and uphold them to standards that meet or exceed regulatory standards,” Ms. Ozbay said. “We are committed to making safe products for families.”

There is no government organization that evaluates both conventional and “green” products and rates their safety. Enesta Jones, a spokeswoman for the Environmental Protection Agency, said it was not possible to say if “green” products are safer than traditional cleaners without knowing the specific product chemistry.

The Consumer Product Safety Commission requires the labels of products that are potentially life-threatening to include signal words like “danger,” “poison,” “warning” and “caution.”

Federal law doesn’t require full disclosure of all the chemical ingredients. Ross Holthouse, external relations manager for fabric and home care at Procter & Gamble, which makes Tide and Cheer, said that listing the 300 to 400 raw ingredients in detergent, for example, could be confusing to consumers and might reveal trade secrets. Procter & Gamble lists active ingredients as well as substances such as dyes or fragrances that could be important to consumers with allergies, Mr. Holthouse said. He said that Procter & Gamble employs “Ph.D. toxicologists both from a human safety standpoint as well an environmental safety standpoint to make sure our products are safe before we even think about putting them on the market.”

A Kids Safe Chemicals Act, proposed in 2005, would require that all chemicals used in the home be evaluated for their safety to children, and require companies to list ingredients containing mutagens, hormone or endocrine disrupters, neurotoxins or carcinogens. Senator Frank Lautenberg, a New Jersey Democrat, said he planned to re-introduce the legislation this year.

“We have laws that make sure medicines are safe for the public, but we don’t do the same for chemicals in household products, even toys and bottles used by children,” Mr. Lautenberg said. “This must change.”

In some places, it is changing, building by building. Deirdre Imus, an environmental activist who is married to the well-known radio host Don Imus, started a campaign in 2001 to reduce toxins in cleaning techniques at Hackensack University Medical Center in New Jersey, where she had founded the Deirdre Imus Environmental Center for Pediatric Oncology. Since then, she said, she has helped change cleaning methods in two dozen hospitals as well as other school and government buildings.

“There are a lot of products being manufactured out there today that do the job and do it cost effectively without any of the health impacts,” said Ms. Imus, who last March started the Greening the Cleaning product line.

Humans aren’t the only ones who can be affected by chemicals used in the home. Kevin and Alison Schwartz, both 30, of Wantagh, N.Y., were puzzled by the hot spots that their dog, Tucker, kept getting under his chin. Finally they realized that Tucker was reacting to an ammonia-based cleaner they were using on a coffee table where he liked to rest his head.

“My dog basically told me I had these toxic chemicals in my house,” Mr. Schwartz said. They started wiping down the table using only water. Tyler’s rash disappeared but the table wasn’t really clean.

After Ms. Schwartz became pregnant last year, her obstetrician cautioned the Schwartzes to be careful about chemicals in household products. Mr. Schwartz, who owns a pet products business, started researching natural cleaning products.

He hired a chemist and tried 150 different formulations using only vegetable-based surfactants derived from soy, palm kernel oil and sugar. Last March, he started BabyGanics, a line of natural household cleaners now sold in stores like Buy Buy Baby, Babies “R” Us and Giant supermarkets.

“As a parent I want to know that what I am using, my baby can touch,” said Mr. Schwartz, whose son is now 5 months old.

Sam Katz, a lawyer in Atlanta who has a 1-year-old son, agreed. He began to wonder why he was putting baby locks on his cleaning-supply cabinets “to prevent my kid from getting to these chemicals if I am just going to spray it on the ground or in his tub.”

A few months ago he and his wife, Genifer, switched to BabyGanics products. “Now when he crawls on the floor I don’t worry about his hands,” Mr. Katz said. “I know he is going to get dog hair on him but I don’t have to worry about the chemicals. I feel much more comfortable.”