When Shawn Ellis tests the air in parts of a house where
cleaners are stored, he is measuring volatile organic compounds
(VOCs). His meter won't tell you how strong or harmful the
chemical particles might be. It will provide clues as to how
many particles there are.
'Can always smell the cleaning products'
"You can always smell those cleaners even though they’re
all tightly sealed."
Everywhere the cleaning products are kept, the readings jump.
The average home normally reads about 50 parts per billion.
We asked Ellis to test three products that are often advertised
on television: Pledge, Clorox Wipes and Lysol Disinfecting
Pledge registered 273 ppb. Anything over 500 could be a problem
for people with sensitivities.
The Clorox Wipes came in at more than 1,000 ppb. The Lysol
Disinfecting Spray was much higher — around 1,200 parts
per million, or 1,000 times higher than the
We live in an increasingly chemical society: experts don't
know how dangerous these chemicals might be, but they are
starting to worry. Dr. Gideon Koren is a
Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto.
"How can we, as one of the most advanced countries in
the world allow these to enter our household for small children,
without the appropriate testing to see that it’s safe?"
Young children especially vulnerable
Koren says young children are especially vulnerable, partly
because of exposure. Everything goes in their mouths and they
virtually live on the floor. And young kids are more sensitive
because they are still developing the basic body systems:
the brain, internal organs, respiratory and immune systems
are not fully developed until adolescence.
Koren and his researcher are studying the babies of women
who were exposed to chemical solvents in the workplace. They're
finding vision problems.
"Vision is one of the functions of the human brain,
so it means that these chemicals find themselves through the
mum, through the umbilical cord, into the baby, into the developing
brain, and damaging functions there, and the baby is born
already with a problem," Koren said.
Manufacturers are obliged to release toxicology data in
the workplace. But when these same chemicals are used in
the home, the exposure is lower. But no one knows what affect
they may have — and there's no obligation to inform
In Canada, respiratory illness is now the leading cause of
admission to hospital for children. Childhood asthma has jumped
by 400 per cent. After injuries, cancer is now the leading
cause of death in children between the ages of five and nine.
Dr. Virginia Salares specialized in indoor air quality. We
asked her what's in some of the products being marketed to
young families. One product we looked at — Lysol Anti-bacterial
Action Spray — lists ethanol 79 per cent. Not just any
ethanol, Salares, says. It's denatured ethanol.
Salares has put together a book for us, full of data sheets
which lists the hazards of specific chemicals in the workplace.
Here's what she discovered about denatured ethanol:
"May cause irritation of the eyes and mucous membranes,
may cause central nervous system depression if inhaled or
There's also alkyl dimethyl benzyl ammonium chloride —
The ads suggest you can spray this every day, where kids
are playing. Salares says that's something parents should
"Do they want to spray the air people are breathing?
Or that kids with toys or surfaces that children are touching,
do they want them sprayed?"
Clorox Disinfecting Wipes lists two ingredients: dimethyl
benzyl ammonia chloride .145 per cent and dimethyl ethyl benzyl
ammonia chloride. Again, more pesticides.
If you can't pronounce it, should you
"If you find that it has ingredients, which is a chemical
you can’t even pronounce, you don’t know what
it is, you don’t know how it can affect you. I think
it’s about time you think, should I be using this?"
The other product we looked at was Pledge. It doesn't list
any ingredients at all. But Salares has looked into it: "It
has silicones… and it has butane gas…and
And in glass cleaners? "Some of them have what are
called glycol ethers. and there’s concern over these
products for workers who have been exposed occupationally.
They have been seeing reproductive effects. In the semi-conductor
industry they are being phased out," Salares said.
Salares says we still don't know what kind of exposure to
these chemicals is harmful for children, but she notes that
at some level, they can be harmful.
Larry Stoffman with the Labour Environmental Alliance Society,
helps run a watchdog group that looks out for the health and
safety of workers.
system in the workplace that
uses symbols for both acute and chronic hazards and statements
that are supposed to warn you about those hazards… Some
of these same chemicals are in consumer products but there’s
nothing on the label like that for a consumer product."
Household cleaners fall under the Hazardous Products Act,
which dates back to the mid-1960s. They're regulated by the
Consumer Chemicals and Containers Regulations. Labels are
required to provide hazard symbols like "poison"
and "flammable." They also have to give information
about first aid treatments for those ingredients. But there's
no requirement to list other chemicals that could cause long-term
health effects — and no warnings that say anything like
"may cause respiratory problems."
"People assume that it’s on the shelf it’s
been tested, it’s safe. And you can’t make that
assumption all the time. You can’t. Not with the regulatory
framework we have in place," Kathy Cooper of the Canadian
Environmental Law Association, told Marketplace.
Cooper adds that Hazardous Products Act badly needs to be
Health Canada told us in an e-mail that:
“The responsibility for assessing the hazards associated
with a chemical product is that of the manufacturer."
We wanted to ask Health Canada about its role and some of
the concerns raised in this story, but they refused repeated
requests for an on-camera interview. The manufacturers of
Lysol, Clorox and Pledge all said they were unavailable for
an interview and so did their trade association.
Meanwhile, back at the Sauls' home, Shawn Ellis advises Amanda
to cut back on some of her cleaning products.
"I think I’m going to go through all of them and
try to find one or two that might work but also another way
I might do it too is to see what natural products are out
there," Amanda Saul said.
She'll have to figure out what to cut out on her own. For
the time being, the government and the manufacturers of household
cleaning products are under no obligation to help her.