What's Toxic And What's Not?
Arriving At a Realistic Green Cleaning Policy: Part 3
Many proponents of green cleaning believe against chemical-based cleaning agents because of their “toxic” ingredients. Let’s stop here and focus on what “toxic” really means.
We as cleaning professionals, and you as consumers, hear a great deal about the toxicity of commonly used household cleaning materials. It appears that the word “toxic” is tossed freely about with little attention to what it really means.
First, let’s define what is toxic. Dictionaries define something that is toxic as a material that contains a poison or is itself poisonous, meaning that the toxic ingredient or the stuff itself is capable of causing death or serious debilitation.
So, it seems that if something can cause death or serious debilitation, it is toxic. What we have said so far is not really an accurate definition of what is toxic because an essential consideration has been left out: In what amount must a substance be ingested to be toxic?
For example, let’s consider the naturally occurring mineral borax composed of sodium, boron, oxygen, and water. This all-natural alternative to bleach is widely used to clean, deodorize, disinfect, and soften water. This seemingly harmless mineral meets every criterion as a “natural” cleaning agent. Boron is even essential for plants.
So, is borax toxic? It certainly is to roaches, ants, and fleas because borax is used as a pesticide for such pests. But the amount required to kill a bug is not toxic to humans. But in a sufficient quantity—15-20 grams—borax ingested by an adult is lethal.
Anyone undertaking scientific, impartial research will find risks associated with all cleaning products—natural or man-made. The important thing is to be aware of product risks so you can use them properly.
Yes, according to definition, borax is toxic. But if used properly, it is not. Should we stop using borax? No; just use it responsibly and do not ingest it in a lethal amount. Should plants stop ingesting boron? No; as long as they don’t ingest too much of it. Used responsibly, even toxic substances pose no harm. The EPA has defined the acceptable daily intake (ADI) of a chemical that a person can be exposed to over time (usually a lifetime) without suffering deleterious effects. No person using common household cleaners as directed will exceed the ADI of any ingredient. If manufactured without harm to the environment, if used according to directions, and if properly disposed of, natural or man-made products are acceptable for use.
It is irresponsible, unscrupulous, unfair to portray a material as “toxic” only because it contains an ingredient that is toxic. Whether or not the amount of the ingredient represents a lethal dose or not, if used properly it is not toxic. Yes, the ingredient may be toxic, but only if the ingredient itself is ingested, breathed in, or rubbed on the skin in sufficient quantity. Though an ingredient may be toxic (in lethal amounts), the product itself probably is not.
Having come across this article, a reader sent us this further interpretation and to illustrate our points:
“Should we throw away the rat poison we use around the house? No, if we are careful to use according to printed directions. Yes, if we plan to swallow it.
Should we toss out the alcohol in the liquor cabinet? No, if we consume it responsibly. Yes, if we plan to drink an entire bottle at once.
Should we discard all the drugs in our medicine cabinets? No, if we follow label directions. Yes, if we plan to take them all at once.
Should we sell our car? No, if we drive lawfully. Yes, if we plan to drive off a 300-foot cliff.
And, finally, should we give up drinking water? No, if we drink only enough to quench our thirst. Yes, if we plan to drink huge amounts that can kill us (which has happened)…because, like the poison, alcohol, and cars, water, too, can be toxic!”
To Be Fair
In all fairness to the points made above, some natural or man-made substances, even if used properly, can cause discomfort, reactions, and other harmful effects to some individuals. While most commonly used cleaning products pose no danger if they are used responsibly, some people may experience skin irritations, coughing, and other reactions, which are generally temporary and not serious. Therefore, such individuals should not be exposed to such products.
Also, some chemical compounds—either natural or man-made—may be bioaccumulative, which means the material poses no harm if used according to directions, but if ingested even in small, non-lethal amounts, can accumulate in the human body until eventually they can be harmful. As part of our Green Cleaning Policy, White Glove will never use any product that contains a substance with this property.
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