We seem to be a society obsessed with cleanliness. We want
our whites whiter and our bathrooms and kitchens hospital-grade
disinfected. Industry has answered: today's cleaning products
promise faster, easier, better results, and no scrubbing.
But is our clean-freak streak is harming our kids?
Shawn Ellis is a toxicologist who's begun marketing his services
to anxious homeowners. He tests the air in people's homes
to see how many chemicals or other particulate matter may
be floating there.
Among his clients is Amanda Saul. She has severe respiratory
problems. Five weeks ago, she was rushed to hospital because
she couldn't breath.
"I called Shawn because I was having a lot of problems
breathing and I wasn’t sure if it had to do with the
house, moulds and stuff, or whether it had to do with the
air quality, maybe even our cleaning products."
Her oldest son, Kieran, is three. Like so many kids these
days, he suffers from allergies, eczema and asthma.
Ellis tests for all kinds of things:
moisture and chemicals.
"Some of my clients, using cleaners, especially if it’s
a combination of cleaners, can actually feel dizzy or have
What he's talking about are everyday cleaning products —
like the ones Amanda and her husband use every day. Many of
them contain chemicals.
"I think the majority of the awareness of cleaning products
in people’s homes are that a cleaning product is natural
and safe. I don’t think people consider cleaning products
chemicals," Ellis said.
Amanda Saul and her family like their cleaners as much as
"It is very seductive to try and get the best cleaning
product out there that will actually do the job."
And the advertising for those products addresses that feeling.
The come-on to parents is full of babies and young children
looking adorable — and vulnerable. It's a parent's job
to keep them free from germs. Last year, Canadians spent more
than $275 million on household cleaning products.
Not required to disclose ingredients
Kathy Cooper — a senior researcher with the Canadian
Environmental Law Association — says there's a lot we
don't know about the chemicals in our cleaners. Companies
are not required to tell us.
"For cleaning products in particular, the only thing
the label will tell you is whether it is seriously toxic…if
you swallow it or get it in your eye, or will the container
blow up…but you don’t have any information about…long
term toxicity," Cooper told Marketplace.
If you look at the label of your favourite floor cleaner
or furniture polish, you won't see much in the way of ingredients.
That's because companies are protected by trade secrets. If
you do see an ingredient, it's because it could blow up or
poison you. Many other chemicals are not even listed.
"If you had the kind of
laws that they have
in Europe, where it would tell you that 'this product contains
something that may cause cancer' and another similar product
that does the same job doesn’t, you might not buy the
product that contains the carcinogen," said Larry Stoffman
an international expert on chemical hazards information.