To Clean or Not?

Nancy Snow, MS
Research and Communications Specialist

Headlines in the last 24 hours or so have looked too good to be true: Cancer risk in a clean house and Houseproud women ‘more at risk from breast cancer.’ Can I really stop cleaning without guilt?

Sadly, the spin on a new study is indeed too good to be true. The study was published yesterday in the journal Environmental Health: “Self-reported chemicals exposure, beliefs about disease causation, and risk of breast cancer in the Cape Cod Breast Cancer and Environment Study: A case-control study,” with data that “suggest that cleaning product use contributes to increased breast cancer risk.” The increased risk was up to two-fold in the highest compared with lowest quartile of self-reported combined cleaning product use and combined air freshener use.

The five categories of cleaning products that women in the study were asked about using — solid and spray air fresheners, surface cleaners, oven cleaners, and mold/mildew products — typically contain chemicals known to have adverse health effects: chlorine, ammonia, several different solvents, phthalates, parabens, alcohol, fragrances, disinfectants, lye and more.

But if you stop cleaning, other chemical bad actors lurk in house dust: PBDEs from virtually any electric appliance that has plastic components; lead from pre-1978 house paint; pesticide and oil residues brought into houses on shoes; and vinyl from blinds, plumbing, furniture, shower curtains and many other things plastic. Then there are unfriendly pathogens that may be brought into your house on food, pets or visitors; toxic mold that’s always floating about the air waiting for a moist place to land and grow; and much bigger organisms that will be attracted to unclean areas: ants, cockroaches, and even rats.

The takeaway here is not to stop cleaning, it’s to stop cleaning with toxic chemicals. CHE provides a searchable database of books, websites, databases, consumer guides and more with everything from the science behind chemicals’ effects on health to recipes for nontoxic cleaning products.

As for the solid and spray air fresheners: they’re not needed at all. If your house smells, remove the source of the odor, whether animal waste, garbage, smoke residue, mold, mildew or old gym clothes. Open a window for at least part of every day if you can, and breathe easier both during and after cleaning your house.

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