Reader Question: Should You Toss Unused Toxic Cleaners?

Today we’ve got a reader 2-part question, collected from the Seventh Generation company review post:

The first part of the question…

“My mom is transitioning from nasty chemical cleaning products and detergents to relatively more eco-friendly choices, such as Seventh Generation. However, she asked me if she should use up the nasty stuff she has (she still has A LOT of that) or just throw it all out.

Do you recommend she use that stuff up or just throw it out? (She’s already bought 7th generation products). It’s such a (financial and otherwise) waste to just throw it all out. The ecological damage of it ending up in a landfill or going into the water system seems negligible (yes?) but in terms of the health hazards of continuing to use the nasty stuff, I’m less sure.”

Actually of all the green questions I’ve received via email or comments over the years, I’d guess this is the most commonly asked. I see this as a positive. It shows that folks are thinking about tossing icky toxic cleaners in exchange for better, healthier cleaners.

1. Which household cleaners are worth keeping? Really, very few conventional cleaners are safe. I recommend only using green cleaners. The EPA notes that the following conventional cleaning products should be of concern regarding health; “bath and kitchen disinfectants and sanitizers, including bleach, household cleaning or maintenance products, such as drain cleaner, paints, or glues, automotive products stored around the home, such as anti-freeze or windshield washer fluid, products used to kill mold or mildew.” WHEW that doesn’t leave much.

The American Lung Association suggests you use safe, green and natural cleaners whenever possible. I can’t personally suggest you keep any of the conventional cleaners you have, because I wouldn’t use them myself. See how seriously dangerous chemical cleaners are.

Basically, if the label reads like a chem book, not a cookbook, I’d toss that cleaner.

2. Smart chemical cleaner disposal. Obviously you don’t want to give these cleaners to anyone else and tossing them in the sink or on the street is a big NO. Cleaners can be just as toxic to the environment as they are to you. When you release hazardous materials into the groundwater system, air and soil you’re not helping the situation.

Luckily, there are ethical and safe chemical cleaner disposal methods.

  • Check with your local recycling center. They may not accept hazardous waste, but they likely can tell you who will.
  • Earth 911 lists at least a dozen hazardous waste drop-off locations in my area that accept cleaning products. You can do an easy search for your own local city at Earth 911 too.
  • If you do a general online search choose your city (we’ll use Portland) and then enter a term like, “HHW drop off in Portland, Oregon” or “HHW collection in Portland, Oregon.
  • Look on the back of the package. Find the manufacturer’s toll-free number and call them for disposal recommendations.

NOTE! Some manufacturers will tell you that any water-based product is perfectly safe to toss in the drain. I don’t agree, but since many HHW collectors do think anything water based is safe to toss, you may not always have a choice.  For example, I’ve been told by many a cleaning company that bleach is considered safe to dump down a drain and I know some HHW collection sites won’t take bleach because of this. Thankfully, HHW collectors where I live now, do consider anything with the words “Poison” on it a HHW so they’ll take cleaners.

The second part of the question:

“Can you recommend websites with data on health hazards of common cleaning products? (She uses shout, cascade, Palmolive, Clorox…).”

To find out how many dangerious ingredients are in basic store-bought cleaners visit the Household Products Database. Make a list of the chemicals in said cleaner, then head to the OSHA/EPA Occupational Chemical Database and enter any chemical to see how dangerious it is.

The Environmental Working Group maintains a chemical index list along with a routes of exposure list that covers plenty of cleaners.

You can also do a general online search for a cleaning product’s MSDS sheet, although, they’re full of info supplied by the company, thus not always accurate. As an MSDS example, you can check out Clorox – as much as I don’t like them, they do make their MSDS sheets easily available to the public. I’m not saying buy from them, but one simple search of Clorox MSDS brought up a great Clorox provided list.

Keep in mind – no matter what database you use to look up cleaners, it’s not going to be terribly useful. As consumers, we honestly know very little about what’s in cleaners, thanks to the government.

As I’ve noted before, 3 decades ago Congress passed the Toxic Substances Control Act (TCSA) but to date the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has tested only 200 of the more than 80,000 chemical compounds developed for all sorts of products used in the home; cleaners included.

That’s a whole lot of chemicals not tested for safety, which is why it’s smart to avoid all of them. I suggest taking the road of least risk with regards to cleaners. If the government and all these cleaning companies don’t think we deserve to know what chemicals we’re using, why use them?

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