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Unacceptable Ingredients: The chemicals

The chemicals listed in this section are by no means complete. There are thousands upon thousands of individual chemicals in products that are available for consumer use, most of which have not been adequately tested for their effects on human and environmental health. This list is a brief summary of some of the more frequently encountered consumer chemicals that, in our opinion, should not be used in any product, especially and most critically those marketed as "environmentally responsible." The list contains chemicals whose effects on human and environmental health are sufficiently hazardous to preclude their use under any circumstances.

While you may use this list as a general guide to selecting products and ingredients, individual purchasing decisions should be made on an as-thorough-as-possible analysis of the product’s specific ingredients, which may or may not appear on this list.

By the same token, while each entry has attempted to include as complete a list as possible of the types of household products that might contain the chemical or class of chemicals in question, it is possible a particular ingredient may be found in product types not mentioned here.

Unless otherwise noted, the term "synthetic" refers to chemicals made from petroleum. Synthetic chemicals are generally undesirable. In addition to any specific local health or environmental impacts the use of a synthetic may cause, they are made from petroleum, a non-renewable resource whose extraction, refining and transportation can cause major environmental degradation. Manufacture of synthetics is also often an energy intensive process that may introduce a variety of toxic chemicals into air and water. Many do not readily biodegrade and thus bioaccumulate in the environment.

As you begin, a word of encouragement is in order. There are over five million known chemicals. Each must have its own name so scientists can differentiate between them. As a result, chemical names tend to be long and difficult to pronounce. Don’t be intimidated by names or pronunciations. Unfortunately, most chemicals also have more than one name. Some even have 10 or more! If you choose to do your own research, try using the system of CAS (chemical abstract services) numbers to help eliminate confusion.

If a product’s ingredients are not fully and completely disclosed on its label, we strongly recommend avoiding that product.

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The chemicals

Alkanol amines:(also monoethanolamine, diethanolamine, triethanolamine). A class of synthetic solvents that are precursors to the carcinogen diethanolnitrosamine.

Alkyl aryl sodium sulfonates: (See Alkyl benzene sulfonates [ABS])

Alkyl benzene sulfonates: or ABS (also linear alkyl benzene sulfonates or LAS, linear alkyl sodium sulfonates). A class of synthetic surfactants (see Surfactants below for more information). ABS are very slow to biodegrade and seldom used. LAS, however, are the most common surfactants in use. During the manufacturing process, carcinogens and reproductive toxins such as benzene are released into the environment. While LAS do biodegrade, they do so slowly and are of low to moderate toxicity. LAS are synthetic. The pure compounds may cause skin irritation on prolonged contact, just like soap. Allergic reactions are rare. Because oleo-based alternatives are available, Las should not be used. Found in: Laundry detergents (usually identified as "anionic surfactants").

Alkyl benzyl sulfonates: (See Alkyl benzene sulfonates [ABS])

Alkyl phenoxy polyethoxy ethanols: (also nonyl phenoxy ethoxylate or nonyl phenol). This is a general name for a group of synthetic surfactants (see Surfactants below for more information). They are slow to biodegrade in the environment and have been implicated in chronic health problems. Researchers in England have found that in trace amounts they activate estrogen receptors in cells, which in turn alters the activity of certain genes. For example, in experiments they have been found to stimulate the growth of breast cancer cells and feminize male fish. One member of this family of chemicals is used as a common spermicide, indicating the general level of high biological toxicity associated with these compounds. Found in: Laundry detergents, all-purpose cleaners, hard surface cleaners.

Ammonia: Ammonia is an irritant that affects the skin, eyes and respiratory passages. The symptoms of ammonia exposure are: a burning sensation in the eyes, nose and throat; pain in the lungs; headache; nausea; coughing; and increased breathing rate. Ammonia adds nitrogen to the environment. In areas that cannot handle the added nitrogen, disruptions to the ecosystem will result. These include toxic effects to plants, fish and animals. Ammonia is included as a toxic chemical on the EPA’s Community Right-to-Know list and the EPA has set limits on permissible levels in bodies of water. The FDA also regulates the amount of ammonium compounds in food. OSHA regulates the maximum allowable levels in the air to protect workers. Found in: window cleaners.

Amyl acetate: A synthetic grease cutter, amyl acetate is a neurotoxin implicated in central nervous system depression.Found in : Furniture polishes.

Anionic surfactants:(See alkyl benzene sulfonates)

Aromatic hydrocarbons: A class of synthetic compounds used as solvents and grease cutters, these are members of the carcinogenic benzene family of chemicals. Though not all are carcinogenic, aromatic hydrocarbons should nonetheless be considered hazardous. Aromatic hydrocarbons also contaminate air and groundwater. (They cannot easily evaporate underground and little biological activity exists there to cause them to biodegrade.) Found in: Heavy-duty degreasers, deodorizers.

Artificial fragrances: Artificial fragrances are made from petroleum. Many do not degrade in the environment, and may have toxic effects on both fish and mammals. Additionally, they often can cause allergies and skin or eye irritation.

Artificial colors: Artificial colors are made from petroleum, though some are made from coal. Many do not degrade in the environment and also have toxic effects on both fish and mammals. They do not serve any useful purpose. Additionally, they often can cause allergies and skin or eye irritation.

Benzalkonium chloride: A synthetic disinfectant and bacteriacide, this chemical is biologically active (meaning it can negatively affect living organisms). The widespread indiscriminate use of bacteriacides is also now causing the emergence of new strains of bacteria that are resistant to them. Benzalkonium chloride, and other synthetic disinfectants, should be avoided for these reasons. Found in: Spray disinfectants, disinfecting cleaners, disinfecting hand soaps and lotions.

Benzene: (also benzol, benzole, annulene, benzeen, phenyl hydride, coal naphtha). Made from petroleum and coal, benzene is classified by the International Agency for Research on Cancer as a carcinogen, is listed in the 1990 Clean Air Act as a hazardous air pollutant, and is on the EPA’s Community Right-to-Know list.Found in: Oven cleaners, detergents, furniture polish, spot removers.

Butoxethanol: (see butyl cellosolve)

Butyl cellosolve (also butoxyethanol, butyl oxitol, ethylene glycol monobutyl ether). A toxic synthetic solvent and grease cutter that can irritate mucous membranes and cause liver and kidney damage. Butyl cellosolve is also a neurotoxin that can depress the nervous system and cause a variety of associated problems. Found in: Spray cleaners, all-purpose cleaners, abrasive cleaners.

Butyl oxitol: (see butyl cellosolve)

Caustic soda: (see sodium hydroxide)

Chlorine: (also known as hypochlorite, sodium hypochlorite, sodium dichloroisocyanurate, hydrogen chloride, hydrochloric acid) Chlorine was first manufactured on an industrial scale in the early 1900s. It was used as a powerful poison in World War I. Chlorine is the household chemical most frequently involved in household poisonings in the U.S. Chlorine also ranks first in causing industrial injuries and deaths resulting from large industrial accidents. Chlorine is an acutely toxic chemical created through the energy intensive electrolysis of sea water. This manufacturing process also creates extremely toxic byproducts. Sodium hypochlorite (known as household bleach, a 5% solution of sodium hypochlorite) is a chemical precursor of chlorine and should be treated as such because any use will create pure chlorine in the environment.

In addition to its direct toxic effects on living organisms, chlorine also reacts with organic materials in the environment to create other hazardous and carcinogenic toxins, including trihalomethanes and chloroform (THMs), and organochlorines, an extremely dangerous class of compounds that cause reproductive, endocrine and immune system disorders. The most well known organochlorine is dioxin. Products containing chlorine (or any of its derivatives or precursors, including sodium hypochlorite) should be considered highly unacceptable. Similarly, any chemical with "-chlor-" as part of its name, or any ingredient listed as "bleach," should be considered unacceptable as this nomenclature indicates the presence of a highly toxic and environmentally damaging chlorinated compound. Chlorine and chlorinated compounds are also a prime cause of atmospheric ozone loss. Chlorine use in the laundry also degrades both natural and synthetic fibers.

Chlorine is listed in the 1990 Clean Air Act as a hazardous air pollutant and is on the EPA’s Community Right-to-Know list. In 1993, the American Public Health Association issued a resolution calling for the gradual phase-out of most organochlorine compounds.

Found in: Scouring powders, laundry bleach, dishwasher detergent, and basin, tub and tile cleaners.

Chlorophene: (See O-benzyl-p-chlorophenol)

Cocamide DEA: (also cocamide diethanolamine, fatty acid diethanolamines, fatty acid diethanol-amides). Even though this surfactant, which is a foam stabilizer, is made from coconut oils, it is unacceptable because it contains diethanolamine. This synthetic component can react with sodium nitrate or nitrate oxides to form carcinogenic compounds called nitrosamines. Found in: Dishwashing liquids, shampoos, cosmetics.

Cocamide diethanolamine: (See cocamide DEA)

Crystalline silica: Crystalline silica is carcinogenic and acts as an eye, skin and lung irritant. Found in : All-purpose cleaners.

Diammonium EDTA: (See EDTA)

Diethanolamines: (also diethanolamine, triethanolamine and monoethanolamine). A synthetic family of surfactants, this group of compounds is used to neutralize acids in products to make them non-irritating. Diathanolamines are slow to biodegrade and they react with natural nitrogen oxides and sodium nitrite pollutants in the atmosphere to form nitrosamines, a family of potent carcinogens. Found in: Personal care products and some detergents.

Dioxane: (also diethylene dioxide, diethylene ether, diethylene oxide) (not to be confused with DIOXIN). Dioxane is a solvent classified by the EPA as a probable human carcinogen, and some research suggests that it may suppress the immune system. Dioxane is listed in the 1990 Clean Air Act as a hazardous air pollutant and is on the EPA’s Community Right-to-Know list. Found in : Window cleaners.

Diethylene: (see Dioxane)

EDTA: (ethylene-diamino-tetra-acetate). A class of synthetic, phosphate-alternative compounds used to reduce calcium and magnesium hardness in water. EDTA is also used to prevent bleaching agents from becoming active before they’re immersed in water and as a foaming stabilizer. EDTA does not readily biodegrade and once introduced into the general environment can re-dissolve toxic heavy metals trapped in underwater sediments, allowing them to re-enter and re-circulate in the food chain. Found in: Laundry detergents.

Ethyl cellosolve: This synthetic solvent is both a nasal irritant and a neurotoxin (see Solvents). Found in: All-purpose cleaners, automotive antifreeze.

Ethylene glycol: (also ethylene dihydrate, ethylene alcohol).This synthetic solvent is highly toxic and is both a nasal irritant and a neurotoxin (see Solvents). Its vapors contribute to the formation of urban ozone pollution. Ethylene glycol is listed in the 1990 Clean Air Act as a hazardous air pollutant and is on the EPA’s Community Right-to-Know list. Found in: All-purpose cleaners, automotive antifreeze.

Ethylene glycol monobutylether: (see butyl cellosolve)

Fatty acid alkanol amides/amines: These surfactants are made by reacting an ethanolamine with a fatty acid obtained from either synthetic petroleum sources or natural vegetable oils. (Most fatty acids are produced synthetically as this method is currently less expensive.) Fatty acid alkanol amides can react with materials in the environment to form nitrosamines (see diethanolamines above). Found in: Shampoos and conditioners, liquid cleansers, and polishes.

Fatty acid diethanolamines: (See cocamide DEA)

Formaldehyde: Although not common as a primary ingredient, formaldehyde is present as a contaminant in consumer household products. It is an extremely potent carcinogen and respiratory irritant and may appear as a preservative. Products containing this chemical should be considered unacceptable. Found in: Deodorizers, disinfectants, germicides, adhesives, permanent press fabrics, and particleboard.

Germicides: A broad category of usually synthetic bacteriacides. While some germicidal ingredients are natural (tea tree oil, borax), it is safe to assume that any germicide ingredient has a synthetic source until proven otherwise. For more information, see benzalkonium chloride above. Found in: Spray disinfectants, disinfecting cleaners, disinfecting hand soaps and lotions.

Glycol ethers: (See butyl cellosolve)

Hydrochloric acid: (also see chlorine and muriatic acid) A strong mineral or "inorganic" acid. In high concentrations, it is extremely corrosive. Found in: Toilet bowl cleaners.

Hypochlorite: (See chlorine)

Hydrogen chloride: (See chlorine)

Kerosene: (also mineral spirits) A synthetic distillate used as a grease cutter, kerosene can damage lung tissues and dissolve the fatty tissue that surrounds nerve cells. Mineral spirits function similarly and often contain the carcinogen benzene as an impurity. Found in: All-purpose cleaners and abrasives (use of kerosene in these product categories is rare), furniture polishes, degreaser.

Linear alkyl benzene sulfonates: (See alkyl benzene sulfonates)

Linear alkyl sulfonates: (See alkyl benzene sulfonates)

Methanol: (also methyl alcohol) A solvent derived from wood or petroleum, methanol is acutely toxic and can cause blindness. Found in: Glass cleaners.

Methyl alcohol: (See methanol above)

Mineral Oil derived from gasoline and petrolatum

Mineral acids: (See hydrochloric acid)

Mineral spirits: (See kerosene)

Monoethanolamine: (See diethanolamines)

Morpholine: A highly toxic synthetic that can cause liver and kidney damage. While this ingredient is rare in consumer products, its extreme toxicity warrants its inclusion on this list. Found in: All-purpose cleaners and abrasives, waxes, polishes, antiseptic products.

Muriatic acid: (See hydrochloric acid)

Naphthas: (See petroleum distillates)

Napthalene: A member of the carcinogenic benzene family derived from coal tar or made synthetically. Known to bioaccumulate in marine organisms, naphthalene causes allergic skin reactions and cataracts, alters kidney function and is extremely toxic to children. Found in: Deodorizers, carpet cleaners, toilet deodorizers.

Nitrilotriacetic acid: (See NTA)

Nonyl-phenol: (See alkyl phenoxy p olyethoxy ethanols)

Nonyl phenoxy ethoxylate: (See alkyl phenoxy polyethoxy ethanols)

NTA: (Nitrilotriacetic acid) This carcinogenic phosphate substitute is banned in the U.S. As with EDTA, it can free heavy metals in the environment and reintroduce them into the food chain. NTA is slow to biodegrade. Found in: No U.S. manufactured products. However, imported products, especially laundry detergents, should be scrutinized to ensure that no NTA has escaped regulatory attention.

O-benzyl-p-chlorophenol: (also 4-chloro-a-phenyl o-cresol, chlorophene). A synthetic disinfect used in hand soaps, this is chlorinated hydrocarbon and is therefore unacceptable. Bacterial resistance hazards associated with the indiscriminate use of disinfectants (see benzalkonium chloride above for more information) can also occur with use. Found in: Hand soaps.

Optical brighteners: Optical brighteners are a broad classification of many different synthetic chemicals that, when applied to clothing, convert UV light wavelengths to visible light, thus making laundered clothes appear "whiter." Their inclusion in any formula does not enhance or affect the product’s performance in any way; they simply trick the eye. Optical brighteners do not readily biodegrade. They are toxic to fish when washed into the general environment and can create bacterial mutations. They can cause allergic reaction when in contact with skin that is then exposed to sunlight. Most optical brighteners are given trade names which consumers are unlikely to see on a label. Found in: Laundry detergents.

Organic solvents: A category of solvents and grease-cutters of mostly synthetic origin (organic in this instance refers to their petroleum origins). All chemicals in this category are generally neurotoxins and nervous system depressants, especially if contacted in sufficient quantity. Found in: All-purpose cleaners, degreasers and metal polishes.

p-Dichlorobenzene: (See Paradichlorobenzene)

Paradichlorobenzene: (also p-Dichlorobenzene, PDCB) A chlorinated synthetic of extreme chronic toxicity and environmental concern. Paradichlorobenzene is an endocrine disrupter and carcinogen. It does not readily biodegrade. Found in: Mothballs and deodorizers.

PDCB: (See Paradichlorobenzene)

Perchloroethylene: (also "Perc") A chlorinated solvent used most commonly in the dry cleaning process, "perc" is implicated in 90% of all groundwater contamination. Found in: Degreasers, spot removers, dry cleaning fluids.

Petroleum-(petrolatum)based waxes: A broad category of synthetic waxes. Although they may appear in products like butcher’s wax, typically these are used for polishing or waxing in conjunction with a solvent and a spray. Once sprayed, the solvent evaporates (creating air toxins) and leaves the wax behind as a residue. Additionally, spraying is an inefficient way to apply a product and ingredients that rely on it for dispersal are suspect. Found in: Furniture polishes and floor waxes, cosmetics, tolietries.

Petroleum(petrolatum) distillates :(also naphthas). A broad category encompassing almost every type of chemical obtained directly from the petroleum refining process. Any ingredient listed as a "petroleum distillate" or "naphtha" should be suspect as it is, firstly a synthetic and, secondly, likely to cause one or more detrimental health or environmental effects.

Phosphates : A key nutrient in ecosystems, phosphates are natural minerals important to the maintenance of all life. Their role in laundry detergents is to remove hard water minerals and thus increase the effectiveness of the detergents themselves. They are also a deflocculating agent; that is, they prevent dirt from settling back onto clothes during washing. While relatively non-irritating and non-toxic in the environment, they nonetheless contribute to significant eutrophication of waterways and create unbalanced ecosystems by fostering dangerously explosive marine plant growth (see Eutrophication under "Water Impact" in the section "What Makes an Ingredient Undesirable?" page 12). For these reasons they are banned or restricted in many states. Products containing phosphates should be considered unacceptable. Almost all dishwasher detergents contain phosphates. Found in: Laundry detergents. All-purpose cleaners, dishwasher detergents.

Phosphoric acid: (also mataphosphoric acid, orthophosphoric acid). Phosphoric acid is included as a toxic chemical on the EPA’s Community Right-to-Know list.. It is also controlled under the Clean Air Act as an air pollutant. OSHA regulates the maximum allowable levels in the workplace to protect workers. Found in: Bathroom cleaners.

Polycarboxylates: Similar in chemical structure to certain plastics and acrylic compounds, these are relatively new, synthetic phosphate substitutes. Because they are recent additions to the consumer product chemical arsenal, however, their effects on human and environmental health remain largely unknown. Though tests show they are non-toxic, do not interfere with treatment plant operation and generally settle out with the sludge during water treatment, until further study and analysis are conducted, use of this ingredient is not recommended. Further, they are not biodegradable and are petroleum based. Found in: Laundry detergents, all-purpose cleaners and dishwasher detergents.

Polyethylene glycol: (also PEG). Another type of anti-redeposition agent, PEG is a polymer made from ethylene oxide and is similar to some non-ionic detergents. Not considered toxic, it takes large doses to be lethal in animals. However, PEG is slow to degrade and is synthetic.

Propylene glycol: A synthetic solvent much like ethylene glycol. Of the two, propylene glycol is less toxic. A derivative of propylene oxide, which is listed as a known carcinogen on the Report on Carcinogens with the GAC. In deodorant, cosmetics, tolietries, shampoos

Quaternium 15: An alkyl ammonium chloride used as a surfactant, disinfectant and deodorant that releases formaldehyde, a potent toxin. Found in: Detergents, deodorizers, disinfectants.

Soda lye: (See sodium hydroxide)

Sodium dichloroisocyanurate:(See chlorine)

Sodium hydroxide: (also lye, caustic soda, white caustic, soda lye). Sodium hydroxide is derived from the electrolysis of brine sea water as a co-product of chlorine. It is a strong, caustic substance and causes severe corrosive damage to eyes, skin and mucous membranes, as well as the mouth, throat, esophagus and stomach. Injury can be immediate. Blindness is reported in animals exposed to as little as 2% dilution for just one minute. Skin is typically damaged to 0.12% dilutions for a period of one hour. Tests with healthy volunteers exposed to the chemical in spray from oven cleaners showed that respiratory tract irritation developed in 2 to 15 minutes. Sodium hydroxide is included as a toxic chemical on the EPA’s Community Right-to-Know list. It is also a controlled substance in the workplace, and OSHA has set limitations on concentrations in the air. Found in: Oven cleaners, drain cleaners

Sodium hypochlorite: (See chlorine)

Stoddard solvent: A petroleum distillate used as a solvent and degreaser. (See kerosene) Found in: All-purpose cleaners and abrasives.

Surfactants: (sodium lauryl sulfate, sodium laureth sulfate (See entry under "Terms and Elements") Found in: Laundry products, all-purpose cleaners, dish detergent and dish liquids, and other common cleaning products, shampoos, toiletries, cosmetics.

Tetrapotassium pyrophosphate/ Tetrasodium pyrophosphate: Basic phosphates (tetrasodium being the more common of the two) used to reduce water hardness. (See phosphates above) Found in: Laundry detergents, all-purpose cleaners

Trichloroethane: (also methyltrichloromethane, TCA, methyl chloroform, chloroethane). A chlorinated solvent used for cleaning and degreasing, it is known to contribute to depletion of stratospheric ozone and will be phased out by 2002. Trichloroethane is listed in the 1990 Clean Air Act as a hazardous air pollutant and is on the EPA’s Community Right-to-Know list.

Triethanolamine: (See diethanolamines)

Xylene sulfonate: Xylene is a synthetic that, when reacted with sulfuric acid, creates a surfactant. Slow to biodegrade in the environment and moderately toxic. Found in: Laundry products, all-purpose cleaners, dish detergent.

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