If you’re looking for a reason to skip housecleaning, how’s this: The chemicals in many common cleaners may have toxic effects on fertility. “The science isn’t black and white, but there’s enough evidence out there for us to be really concerned about the effect these chemicals are having on our reproductive processes,” says Alexandra Gorman Scranton, director of science a a, Montana, and author of the group’s report Household Hazards: Reproductive Harm and Household Cleaning Products (available at womenandenvironment.org).
Compounding the problem is the lack of labeling standards. “Just because a product says ‘all-natural’ or ‘biodegradable’ doesn’t mean it’s safe,” Scranton says. Here are some tips on what to choose, what to avoid.
Synthetic fragrances in cleaning products, such as laundry detergents, are often bonded by chemicals call phthalates. “The manufacturers want you to smell the fragrance when you open the box, when you use the product, and then later when you smell the clothes,” says Martin Wolf, director of product and environmental technology at Seventh Generation, a company that creates nontoxic and earth-friendly cleansers. “Fragrances in nature disperse quickly; [phthalates] bond the fragrance to the clothing so you keep smelling it.” Wolf adds that air-freshening products of all varieties are also worth avoiding. Natural odor-removers such as baking soda and fresh air are good alternatives.
Another group of chemicals, alkyl phenoxy ethoxylates (APEs), are lesser known, but still quite suspicious. These are surfactants, or agents that cause water surface tension to break more easily, and they’re common in laundry detergents and fabric softeners. In animal studies, APEs have been associated with reduced sperm count and testicular size. Because they’re not readily biodegradable, APEs enter the water system after they’re washed out of your laundry. And while the effect on humans is not yet proven, it’s worth noting that one member of the APE family of chemicals, nonoxyl-9, is used as a spermicide.
The solvents found in many glass cleaners, carpet cleaners, hard-surface cleaners, and oven cleaners contain EGBE, or 2-butoxyethanol, which evidence links to fertility problems in lab animals. “What people don’t consider is that a solvent that tells you it cuts through grease is also something that easily gets through the skin and into the body,” says Devra Lee Davis, M.P.H., director of the Center of Environmental Oncology at the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute and professor of epidemiology at the Graduate School of Public Health. ”Studies in China, where fertility is very closely monitored, show links to decreased fertility in women with high exposure to these chemicals.”
Making safer choices
The safest choice for anyone hoping to have children is to exercise caution. “Reproduction is an exquisitely sensitive and complicated process,” Davis says. “And chemicals are all tested one at a time, but we’re not exposed one at a time. We’re really limited in our capacity to understand the effect these mixtures are having on the body.”
Part of what makes choosing safe cleaners so difficult is the lack of clear labeling. Check the manufacturer’s Web site and look up the Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS) to find out what’s in that bottle (even though the MSDS don’t typically list all ingredients—just those the manufacturer deems hazardous). For more information, contact the customer service number on the packaging and ask what’s in the product. “Any company that won’t say anything is a company you should not trust,” Seventh Generation’s Wolf says.
Try These Fertility-Friendly Cleaners
One of the first companies to take on conventional cleaners, Seventh Generation readily discloses what’s inside their products. There’s a functional ingredient list on the back of each bottle, and a complete ingredient list on the Web site (seventhgeneration.com). All of the cleaners (with the exception of the automatic dishwasher detergents) are produced without petroleum-based ingredients and are biodegradable and nontoxic. Looking for a truly unscented and dye-free alternative? Try the new “Free & Clear” line.
The gimmick may be candy-colored bottles and a happy cow, but these products are the real deal when it comes to safe, effective cleaning. Holy Cow (holycowproducts.com) offers nontoxic glass, all-purpose, and concentrated cleaners that the company claims are strong enough to degrease a car engine, but gentle enough to use on your dishes.
If you’re feeling industrious, you can mix your own products. Women’s Voices for the Earth (womenandenvironment.org) has a link to several recipes for different nontoxic cleaners. Try this all-purpose cleaner: Mix two cups of white vinegar and two cups of water. Add a few drops of essential oil for fragrance if you like. To boost the cleaning power for tough jobs, microwave the mixture in a glass container until barely hot.
A version of this article originally appeared in the Summer 2008 issue of Conceive Magazine.