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The air inside a home can be up to 1000 times more polluted than the air outdoors according to Adria Vasil, author of Ecoholic Home.

Ironically, household cleaning products are to blame. Conventional cleaners—degreasers, disinfectants and even air fresheners—release chemicals that contaminate the air we breathe and affect our immune systems.

So how can we mop our floors and wipe our counters without destroying our germ-fighting capabilities?

One solution is to learn which ingredients to avoid and which products are the most eco-friendly options.

Conventional Cleaning Woes

This July marks a year since the government banned phosphates in detergents. Blue-green algae feed on phosphates, so when the chemicals flow into rivers at an unusually high rate, they can cause a toxic bloom.

A problem that remains is that many cleaning products are not properly labelled. The government does not require companies to list ingredients on cleaning products, so many use vague terms like “preservatives,” “fragrances,” or “dyes” in place of specific ingredients.

It pays to take a close look at even the most innocent-sounding products. Air fresheners, for example, release their own fumes while battling the stink from old sneakers or the cat’s litterbox. They are among a variety of products that produce volatile organic compounds, which, for example, can trigger asthma and skin problems.

Endocrine disruptors found in detergents can mimic hormones and interfere with the reproductive systems in humans and wildlife. Often called “gender benders,” these chemicals pose the greatest threat to pre- and post-natal development.

If products with ingredient lists are hard to come by, a good rule of thumb is to check for third party certification. Ecologo Environmental Choice Stamps, for example, help indicate which products are safest for the environment.

Going Green

Over the years ‘green’ cleaning products have claimed their territory on store shelves, boasting the same results as conventional cleaners without the harsh chemical fumes.

But green cleaning means more than just switching over to the products with flowery labels. A recent study presented at this year’s National Meeting and Exposition of the American Chemical Society revealed that the carbon content in many “‘green”’ cleaners is only partially derived from plants. A significant portion is petroleum-based.

“For the samples tested, our results clearly indicate that even though ‘green’ claims are made on package labels or in advertisements, these claims are not necessarily an indication of where the carbon in these products is coming from,” says Cara A.M. Bondi, who analyzed samples of liquid laundry detergents, dishwashing liquids, and hand soaps for the study.

A recent CBC News investigation also found that some popular lines of cleaning products that claim to be an eco-friendly alternative made with natural ingredients do contain some petro-chemicals.

With all this uncertainty surrounding the chemicals included in cleaning products, the safest alternative may be to use regular household items as cleaning agents. The old vinegar and water solution works best as an all-purpose cleaner for the kitchen and bathroom, and can easily be made by mixing equal parts of each in a spray bottle. Baking soda also works as a natural cleanser to scrub surfaces.

The bottom line is that there are many chemicals in cleaning products which are polluting the environment, inside the home as well as outdoors. It’s impossible to make a conscientious selection of the most eco-friendly options if the ingredients in cleaning products are not properly listed.

As it stands now, the only guaranteed “green” cleaner lies in our kitchen cupboards.