Toxicants that harm the Environment | Sustain The Future | Eco-Friendly Products

Toxicants that harm the Environment

Toxic Agents in the Environment

Poison ivy. Just hearing those words makes some people start itching. Poison ivy contains a toxin that causes severe reactions in many people, so we tend to steer clear of it. Now think of doing your laundry. You probably use detergent in the wash to get your clothes clean, right? You may not put poison ivy and laundry soap in the same category, but environmental toxicologists do.

They study toxicants, which are toxic substances in the environment. Toxicants come in all shapes and sizes, and while they can come from both natural and human-made sources, this lesson will focus on human-made toxicants and their effects on human and environmental health.

Types of Toxicants

As mentioned before, there's a wide variety of toxicants in the environment. To better understand them, we can put them into specific categories that are based on the types of problems they cause. Carcinogens are probably the best-known toxicant because these are cancer-causing chemicals. Cigarette smoke falls into this category as it contains over 4,000 chemicals, many of which cause cancer.

THIS IS A MINIMUM STANDARD. Please review the following Toxicants, and in the questionnaire list any of the following you see here with the dosage for each Toxicant. We evaluate each product on its own merits, with or without these elements in the product. We recommend if you are not sure, to list it and we will confirm through our evaluation efforts.

In general, we are looking for products that are nontoxic, phosphate-free, petroleum-free, 100 % biodegradable and free of volatile organic compounds.

 ACETONE A neurotoxin, acetone may cause liver and kidney damage, and damage to the developing fetus. It is a skin and eye irritant. Found in spot treatment cleaners, mark and scuff removers, and other products. A Common Hazardous Ingredients in Cleaning Products

 ALKANOLAMINES also monoethanolamine, diethanolamine,triethanolamine) A family of synthetic surfactants and solvents, this group of compounds is used to neutralize acids in products to make them non-irritating. Alkanolamines are slow to biodegrade. Diethanolamine can react with nitrogen oxides in the atmosphere or with sodium nitrite to form diethanolnitrosamine, a probable carcinogen. Found in: Personal care products and some detergents.

 ALKYL ARYL SODIUM SULFONATES (see Alkyl benzene sulfonates [ABS])

 ALKYL BENZENE SULFONATES or ABS (also linear alkyl benzene sulfonates or LAS) A class of synthetic surfactants (see Surfactants for more information). ABS are very slow to biodegrade and are seldom used. LAS, which degrade to a greater extent than ABS, 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. LAS are synthetic and are of low to moderate toxicity. 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") all-purpose cleaners, hard surface cleaners.

ALKYL BENZYL SULFONATES (see Alkyl benzene sulfonates [ABS])

 ALKYL PHENOXY POLYETHOXY ETHANOLS (also ethoxylate or nonylphenol, nonoxynol, octoxynol, octylphenol, phenoxy or APEs) This is a general name for a group of synthetic surfactants (see Surfactants 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 alter 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 A natural substance, and essential to all life on Earth. Our bodies routinely incorporate ammonia into our metabolic processes. However, in high concentrations ammonia is an irritant that affects the skin, eyes and respiratory passages. The symptoms of extreme ammonia exposure are: a burning sensation in the eyes, nose and throat; pain in the lungs; headache; nausea; coughing; and increased breathing rate. 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. Avoid cleaning products that use high concentrations of ammonia. Found in: window cleaners.

 AMYL ACETATE A volatile solvent, amyl acetate is found in banana oil and is also produced synthetically. In high concentrations, amyl acetate is a neurotoxin implicated in central nervous system depression. Therefore, you should avoid excessive use of cleaners with volatile substances like amyl acetate. If you do use such cleaners, be sure to work in well ventilated areas. Found in: Furniture polishes, bananas.

 ANIONIC SURFACTANTS (see alkyl benzene sulfonates)

 AEROSOL These propellants may contain propane, formaldehyde, a carcinogen, neurotoxin and central nervous system depressant, methylene chloride, a carcinogen, neurotoxin and reproductive toxin, and nitrous oxide . Products applied with aeresol sprays are broken into minute particles, which can be more deeply inhaled than larger particles, which may increase their toxic effect. A Common Hazardous Ingredients in Cleaning Products

 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. (Once underground they cannot easily evaporate, and little biological activity exists there to cause them to biodegrade.) Found in: Heavy-duty degreasers, deodorizers.

 ARTIFICIAL FRAGRANCE Made from petroleum. Many do not degrade in the environment, and may have toxic effects on both fish and mammals. Some are suspected hormone disruptors, or suspected carcinogens. Additionally, they often can cause allergies and skin or eye irritation.

 ARTIFICIAL COLORS 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. Some are suspected carcinogens. They seldom serve any useful purpose. Additionally, they often can cause allergies and skin or eye irritation.

 ARSENIC A toxic heavy metal. Arsenic compounds, such as chromated copper arsenate (CCA), arsenic pentoxide, calcium arsenate, lead arsenate, sodium arsenate, arsenic trioxide, potassium arsenate

 ASPARTAME An artificial sweetner.

 BENZALKONIUM CHLORIDE A synthetic disinfectant and bacteriacide, this chemical is biologically active (meaning it can negatively affect living organisms). Benzalkonium chloride is a member of the class of disinfectants referred to as "Quats." Quats are slow to degrade in the environment and are highly toxic to aquatic life. 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, benzene, 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, degreasers, furniture polish, spot removers. Benzene is seldom an ingredient in consumer products. However, it may be present as an impurity in other chemicals, especially petroleum solvents.

 BISPHENOL (BPA) A building block of polycarbonate plastic.

 BLEACH (see sodium hypochlorite)

 BUTOXYETHANOL (see butyl cellosolve)

 BUTYLATED HYDROXYANISOLE A food and cosmetic preservative. BHA, BHT

 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)

 CADMIUM A heavy metal. Cadmium oxide, cadmium carbonate, cadmium chloride, cadmium nitrate, cadmium sulfide, cadmium sulfate, cadmium selenium sulfide, cadmium telluride

 CARBARYL A neurotoxic insecticide used in anti-flea products and garden pesticides. 1-naphthol N-methylcarbamate, Sevin

 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 water. This manufacturing process also creates extremely toxic byproducts. Sodium hypochlorite (known ashousehold 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. Sodium dichloroisocyanurate, typically found in automatic dishwasher products, also releases chlorine during use. In addition to its direct toxic effects on living organisms, chlorine 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" (except non-chlorine, or oxygen, bleach) should be considered unacceptable as this nomenclature indicates the presence of a potentially 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 phaseout of most organochlorine compounds. Found in: Laundry bleach, disinfecting cleaners, scouring powders, automatic dishwasher detergent, and basin, tub and tile cleaners.

 CHLOROPHENE (see o-Benzyl-p-chlorophenol)

 CHLOROTHALONIL A organochlorine fungicide See: tetrachloroisophthalonitrile

 CHLORPYRIFOS A organophosphate insecticide, phased out for use in homes in 2000. Dursban and Lorsban

 COCAMIDE DEA (also cocamide diethanolamine, fatty acid diethanolamines, fatty acid diethanolamides) 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.


CRYSTALLINE SILICA A carcinogenic and acts as an eye, skin and lung irritant. Found in: Scouring cleaners.

 DEA, TEA, MEA Diethanolamine (DEA), triethanolamine (TEA), and monoethanolamine (MEA) are hormone disruptors. They are also known to combine with nitrates to form cancer-causing nitrosamines. If a product contains nitrites (used as a preservative or present as a contaminant not listed on labels) a chemical reaction can occur either during manufacturing or after a product is made. There is no way to know which products contain nitrosamines because government does not require manufacturers to disclose this information on the label. A 1997 study by the U.S. National Toxicology Program found that these compounds themselves might also be carcinogenic. Repeated skin application of DEA was found to cause liver and kidney damage in animals. The study also discovered that when absorbed through the skin, DEA accumulated in organs. TEA may also cause contact dermatitis in some individuals. Common Hazardous Ingredients in Personal Care Products


DICHLORODIPHENYLTRICHLOROETHANE (see DDT, DDE) A persistent organochlorine insecticidee, banned in the U.S., but used in other countries.

DIELDRIN An organochlorine insecticide

DIETHANOLAMINE (see Alkanolamines)

P-DICHLOROBENZENE (paradichlorobenzene, p-dichlorobenzene, PDCB, paramothballs, para crystals, paracide, p-DCB) Used in mothballs and deodorizers.


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.

DIOXINS You won't find dioxin listed on any label. It's formed as an accidental by-product of some manufacturing processes using chlorine, especially paper bleaching and the creation of plastic. Dioxin is one of the most powerful carcinogens known and accumulates in body fat. Mainstream deodorants and anti-bacterial soaps are suspect. Chlorine bleached tissues, toilet paper and cotton balls can contain dioxin. Plastic bottles may leach dioxin into creams, hampoos and other products we use daily. Common Hazardous Ingredients in Personal Care Products

DIPHACINONE (see diphacin, ratindan, dipazin, diphenadione, diphenacin) A highly toxic rodenticide.

DMDM Hydantoin, Diazolidinyl Urea and Imidazolidinyl Urea Preservatives that release formaldehyde. It is estimated that 20 per cent of people exposed to this chemical will experience an allergic reaction. Exposure to formaldehyde may cause joint pain, depression, headaches, chest pains, ear infections, chronic fatigue, dizziness and loss of sleep. In lab tests, formaldehyde has caused cancer and damaged DNA. Formaldehyde is a known sensitizer. Imidazolidinyl urea may cause contact dermatitis in some individuals. Common Hazardous Ingredients in Personal Care Products

EDTA (ETHYLENEDIAMINETETRAACETATE) A class of synthetic 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 foam stabilizer. EDTA does not readily biodegrade and once introduced into the general environment can redissolve toxic heavy metals trapped in underwater sediments, allowing them to re-enter and recirculate in the food chain. Found in: Laundry detergents, all-purpose cleaners, and cosmetic products

ENDOSULFAN A persistent bioaccumulative organochlorine insecticide

ETHYL CELLOSOLVE This synthetic solvent is both a nasal irritant and a neurotoxin (see Butyl cellosolve). Found in: All-purpose cleaners.

ETHYLENE GLYCOL (also ethylene dihydrate, ethylene alcohol) This synthetic solvent 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.


ETHOXYLATED NONYL PHENOL Nonyl phenols are hormone disruptors and some contain traces of ethylene oxide, a known human carcinogen. They are eye and skin irritants. Used in laundry detergents and other cleaning products. A Common Hazardous Ingredients in Cleaning Products

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.) Excess diethanolamine in fatty acid diethanol amides can react with materials in the environment to form nitrosamines (see Alkanolamines). Found in: Shampoos and conditioners, liquid dish detergents, cleansers, and polishes.


FD and C COLOURS Used extensively in personal care products, FD&C colours are made from coal. Coal tar colours have been found to cause cancer in animals and many people experience allergic reactions like skin irritation and contact dermatitis. They are listed as FD&C or D&C, followed by a colour and a number. Example: FD&C Red No. 6, or D&C Green No. 6. Common Hazardous Ingredients in Personal Care Products

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

FRAGRANCE Synthetic fragrance is the most common ingredient found in personal care products. "Fragrance on a label can indicate the presence of up to 4,000 separate ingredients. Most or all of them are synthetic. Symptoms reported to the FDA have included headaches, dizziness, rashes, skin discoloration, violent coughing and vomiting, and allergic skin irritation. Clinical observations by medical doctors have shown that exposure to fragrances can affect the central nervous system, causing depression, hyperactivity, irritability, inability to cope, and other behavioral changes." (Home Safe Home, Debra Lynn Dadd). Fragrance is a known trigger of asthma. Many of the compounds in fragrance are suspected or proven carcinogens. Phthalates in perfumes are known hormone disruptors. In 1989 the US National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health evaluated 2,983 fragrance chemicals for health effects. They identified 884 of them as toxic substances. The US Environmental Protection Agency found that 100% of perfumes contain toluene, which can cause liver, kidney and brain damage as well as damage to a developing fetus. Common Hazardous Ingredients in Personal Care Products

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.

HYDROOXYCOUMARIN (also see warfarin, alpha-acetonylbenzyl) A highly toxic rodenticide - coumafene, coumarin.

HYPOCHLORITE (see chlorine)

HYDROGEN CHLORIDE (see hydrochloric acid)

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 and aromatic hydrocarbon solvents function similarly and often contain the carcinogen benzene as an impurity. Found in: Heavy-duty degreasers, furniture polishes, all-purpose cleaners and scouring cleaners (use of kerosene in these last product categories is rare).

LANOLIN A common allergen and because of this has been replaced in many products. But there is another reason to be cautious about lanolin. Lanolin is derived from sheep's wool. It may contain residues of insecticides into which sheep are dipped to control external parasites. These insecticides are fat-soluble. Dr. Samuel Epstein, chairman of the Cancer Prevention Coalition, says these chemicals are likely to migrate through the skin and into the bloodstream. However, some sheep producers now control parasites by injecting sheep with insecticides, which work by circulating through the animal's bloodstream. The best way to know if the lanolin in a personal care product is free of insecticide is to look for a certified organic product. Uncontaminated lanolin is perfectly safe, although it can cause contact dermatitis in some people. Lanolin oil, a more refined product, has been found to have little insecticide residue. Purified lanolin oil is a healthy product, as long as you aren't allergic to it. Common Hazardous Ingredient in Personal Care Products

LEAD A highly toxic metal once used in paints and a known carcinogen and hormone disruptor. It is readily absorbed through the skin, and accumulates in the bones. It causes neurological damage and behaviour abnormalities, and large accumulations can result in leg cramps, muscle weakness, numbness and depression. Lead is found in some hair dyes.

D-LINONENE This chemical is produced by cold-pressing orange peels. The extracted oil is 90% d-limonene. It is a sensitizer, a neurotoxin, a moderate eye and skin irritant, and can trigger respiratory distress when vapours are inhaled by some sensitive individuals. There is some evidence of carcinogenicity. D-limonene is the active ingredient in some insecticides. It is used as a solvent in many all-purpose cleaning products, especially 'citrus' and 'orange' cleaners. Also listed on labels as citrus oil and orange oil. A Common Hazardous Ingredients in Cleaning Products

LINEAR ALKYL BENZENE SULFONATES or LAS (see alkyl benzene sulfonates)

LINEAR ALKYL SULFONATES (see alkyl benzene sulfonates)

MERCURY A toxic heavy metal. See: elemental mercury, quicksilver, colloidal mercury, metallic mercury

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)

METHYLENE CHLORIDE A carcinogen, a neurotoxin and a reproductive toxin. On inhalation, it can cause liver and brain damage, irregular heartbeat, and even heart attack. It is a severe skin and moderate eye irritant. Used in stain removers. A Common Hazardous Ingredients in Cleaning Products

MINERAL ACIDS (see hydrochloric acid)

MINERAL SPIRITS (see kerosene)

MOLDS An allergenic fungi that occur throughout nature and can grow on any surface. See: aspergillus, altenaria, stachybotrys, penicillium, cladosporium

MONOETHANOLAMINE (see Alkanolamines) This chemical may cause liver, kidney and reproductive damage, as well as depression of the central nervous system. Inhalation of high concentrations - when cleaning an oven for example - can cause dizziness or even coma. The chemical can also be absorbed through the skin. It is a moderate skin irritant, and a severe eye irritant. Found in many cleaning products, including oven cleaners, tub and tile cleaners, laundry pre-soaks, floor strippers and carpet cleaners. A Common Hazardous Ingredients in Cleaning Products

MORPHOLINE A toxic synthetic solvent 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 abrasive cleaners, waxes, polishes, antiseptic products.

 MURIATIC ACID (see hydrochloric acid)

 NAPHTHAS (see petroleum distillates) Naphthalene 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.

NITRITE (see sodium nitrate, potassium nitrate, ammonium nitrate) A food preservative that is also naturally occurring.


NONYL-PHENOL (see alkyl phenoxy polyethoxy ethanols) This estrogen-mimicking chemical is a surfactant used for its detergent properties. It can be found in some plastics, as well as shaving creams, shampoos and hair colours. It can be created when certain chemicals commonly found in personal care products break down. Nonylphenols can be a component in polyvinyl chloride (PVC), a compound often found in acrylic nails. They are persistent in the environment and of such concern that many European countries are phasing them out. Some manufacturers have voluntarily discontinued their use.

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 a 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 BRIGHTNERS A broad classification of many different synthetic chemicals that, when applied to clothing, convert UV light to visible light, thus making laundered clothes appear "whiter." Their inclusion in any formula does not enhance or affect the product's cleaning 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 cause allergic reactions 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 (see also kerosene, petroleum distillates, petroleum hydrocarbons) A category of solvents and greasecutters 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. Found in: All-purpose cleaners, degreasers, furniture polishes, and metal polishes.

PARABENS (see methylparaben, propylparaben, ethylparaben, butylparaben) Potentially allergenic preservatives and an estrogen mimic, parabens are preservatives with antibacterial properties. Widely used in all kinds of personal care products, paraben is usually preceded by the prefixes methyl-, ethyl-, butyl-, or propyl-. Parabens can cause allergic reactions or contact dermatitis in some people. Preservatives are one of the leading causes of contact dermatitis. There are safer practical alternatives to parabens, including vitamin E, vitamin C and grapefruit seed extract.

PARADICHLOROBENZENE (also p-Dichlorobenzene, PDCB) A chlorinated synthetic associated with chronic toxicities and of 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-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 pollution) and leaves the wax behind as a residue. Additionally, spraying is an inefficient way to apply a product and ingredients that rely on spraying for dispersal are suspect. Found in: Furniture polishes and floor waxes.

PETROLEUM DISTILLATES (also petroleum naphthas) A broad category encompassing almost every 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. Found in: Furniture and floor polishes, degreasers, and all-purpose cleaners.

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?"). For these reasons they are banned or restricted in many states. Products containing phosphates should be considered unacceptable. Almost all automatic dishwasher detergents contain phosphates. Found in: Laundry detergents, all-purpose cleaners, automatic dishwasher detergents.

PHOSPHORIC ACID (also mataphosphoric acid, orthophosphoric acid) Phosphoric acid is a "mineral" acid, like hydrochloric acid. In high concentrations, phosphoric acid is highly corrosive. 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.

PHENYLENEDIAMINE Used in permanent hair dyes, phenylenediamine can cause eczema, bronchial asthma, gastritis, skin irritation and even death. It is also a carcinogen. It can react with other chemicals to cause photosensitivity. The US Food and Drug Administration proposed legislation which would have required warning labels on products, advising that this ingredient can penetrate skin and has been determined to cause cancer in lab animals. If passed, beauty salons would have had to post warnings for their customers. Cosmetic industry lobbyists defeated the proposal. A common Hazardous Ingredients in Personal Care Product. 

PHOSPHORIC ACID An extremely corrosive, it can severely irritate and burn the skin and eyes. Breathing vapours can make the lungs ache, and it may be toxic to the central nervous system. Found in some liquid dishwasher detergents, metal polishes, some disinfectants, and bathroom cleaners, especially those that remove lime and mildew. A Common Hazardous Ingredients in Cleaning Products

PHTHALATES (see DEHP, DINP, DBP, DEP, DIP) Additives used in PVC plastic (vinyl), cosmetics, wood finishes and insecticides. Everyone in the general population is exposed to phthalates from one source or another. They are found in many products from plastics to shampoo. These hormone-disrupting chemicals are suspected of contaminating breast milk and causing damage to the kidneys, liver, lungs and reproductive organs. One type of phthalate, diethyl phthalate (DEP) is commonly found in fragrances and other personal care products. Phthalates are used to enhance fragrances, as solvents, and to denature alcohol. A study published in Environmental Health Perspectives (December 2002) found that DEP is damaging to the DNA of sperm in adult men at current levels of exposure. DNA damage to sperm can lead to infertility and may also be linked to miscarriages, birth defects, infertility and cancer in offspring. DEP is the phthalate found in the highest levels in humans. Recent product tests found the chemical in every fragrance tested in the United States. Manufacturers are not required to list phthalates on product labels, so they are difficult to avoid. A common Hazardous Ingredients in Personal Care Products

POLYCHLORINATED BIPHENYLS (PCBs) A toxic organochlorine compounds, once used as insulators in electrical equipment, that remain in the environment years after their use was banned in 1977

POLYCYCLIC AROMATIC HYDROCARBONS (PAHs - see benzo[a]pyrene, BaP, PAH, PAHs) Particles formed when coal, oil, gas, garbage, tobacco and food are burned.

POLYETHYLENE GLYCOL (also PEG) Another type of antiredeposition 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. PEG may be contaminated with 1,4-dioxane, a carcinogen. Dioxane readily penetrates the skin. While dioxane can be removed from products easily and economically by vacuum stripping during the manufacturing process, there is no way to determine which products have undergone this process. Labels are not required to list this information. Found in: Laundry detergents, cosmetic products, food products.

PPOLYSORBATE 60 and POLYSORBATE 80 May be contaminated with 1,4-dioxane, a carcinogen. Dioxane readily penetrates the skin. While dioxane can be removed from products easily and economically by vacuum stripping during the manufacturing process, there is no way to determine which products have undergone this process. Labels are not required to list this information.

PROPIONIC ACID (also 2-methyl-4-chlorophenoxy) A widely used herbicide used on lawns and golf course.

PROPYLENE GLYCOL A synthetic solvent much like ethylene glycol. Of the two, propylene glycol is less toxic, and it is often touted as a "safe" alternative in automotive antifreeze. It is recognized as a neurotoxin by the National Institute for Occupational Health and Safety in the U.S. It is known to cause contact dermatitis, kidney damage and liver abnormalities. It is widely used as a moisture-carrying ingredient in place of glycerine because it is cheaper and more readily absorbed through the skin. The Material Safety Data Sheet for propylene glycol warns workers handling this chemical to avoid skin contact. Common Hazardous Ingredients in Personal Care Products

QUATERNIUM 15 An alkyl ammonium chloride used as a surfactant, disinfectant and deodorant that releases formaldehyde. See Benzalkonium chloride. Found in: Sanitizing all-purpose cleaners, deodorizers, and disinfectants.

QUATERNARY AMMONIUM COMPOUNDS (Quats) - Listed on labels as benzalkonium chloride, cetrimonium bromide, quaternium-15 and quaternium 1-29, these compounds are caustic and can irritate the eyes. Quaternium-15 is a formaldehyde releaser and the number one cause of preservative-related contact dermatitis. There is concern about their potential as sensitizers. For about 5% of people, quats are an extreme sensitizer and can cause a variety of asthma-like symptoms, even respiratory arrest. When they are used with hot running water, steam increases the inhalation of vapours. These compounds are used in a wide range of products as preservatives, surfactants and germicides. They make hair and skin feel softer immediately after use but long-term use will cause dryness. A common Hazardous Ingredients in Personal Care Products

SODA LYE (see sodium hydroxide)

SODIUM DICHLOROISOCYANURATE (see chlorine) This corrosive chemical is a severe eye, skin and respiratory irritant. It may cause liver and gastrointestinal damage, and may be toxic to the central nervous system. It will react with bleach to form poisonous chlorine gas that can cause burning and watering of eyes, as well as burning of the nose and mouth. It is found in some toilet bowl cleaners and deodorizers, as well as industrial detergents and some institutional dishwashing detergents.

SODIUM HYDROXIDE (also lye, caustic soda, white caustic, soda lye). Sodium hydroxide is derived either from soda ash mined in the western U.S. or 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 a 2% dilution for just one minute. Skin is typically damaged when exposed to 0.12% dilutions for a period of one hour. Tests with healthy volunteers exposed to the chemical in the spray from oven cleaners showed that respiratory tract irritation developed in 2 to 15 minutes. Sodium hydroxide is ubiquitous in the environment. However, it should be avoided in high concentrations (usually indicated by the terms Caution!! Corrosive!! on cleaning products). 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) A corrosive chemical, sodium hypochlorite is an eye, skin and respiratory irritant, as well as a sensitizer. It is especially hazardous to people with heart conditions or asthma, and can be fatal if swallowed. It may be a neurotoxin and toxic to the liver. Found in a wide range of household cleaners.

SODIUM LAURYL SULFATE, SODIUM LAURETH SULFATE This chemical is a known skin irritant and enhances allergic response to other toxins and allergens. The U.S. government has warned manufacturers of unacceptable levels of dioxin formation in some products containing this ingredient. The chemical can react with other ingredients to form cancer-causing nitrosamines. Sodium lauryl sulfate is used as a lathering agent. It is present in ninety per cent of commercial shampoos, as well as skin creams and some brands of toothpaste. Common Hazardous Ingredients in Personal Care Products Sodium laureth sulfate may be contaminated with 1,4-dioxane, a carcinogen. Dioxane readily penetrates the skin. While dioxane can be removed from products easily and economically by vacuum stripping during the manufacturing process, there is no way to determine which products have undergone this process. Labels are not required to list this information.

STODDARD SOLVENT A petroleum distillate used as a solvent and degreaser. (see kerosene)

STYRENE A volatile organic compound (VOC) and solvent

SURFACTANTS Found in: Laundry products, all-purpose cleaners, dish detergent and dish liquids, and most other common cleaning products.

TALC A naturally occurring mineral which is carcinogenic when inhaled. In addition, women who regularly use talc in the genital area are at increased risk for ovarian cancer. Airborne talc in body powders and antiperspirant sprays can irritate the lungs. Talcum powder is reported to cause coughing, vomiting, and even pneumonia. Many pediatricians now tell parents to avoid using talc on babies as it can cause respiratory distress, sometimes resulting in death. Talc is found in blushes, face powders, eye shadows, liquid foundation and skin fresheners. Used near the eyes, it can irritate sensitive mucous membranes. Talc in liquid formulations poses minimal risk. A Common Hazardous Ingredients in Personal Care Products

TETRAPOTASSIUM POLYPHOSPHATE (TSP) Basic phosphates (tetrasodium being the more common of the two) used to reduce water hardness. See phosphates. Found in: Laundry detergents, all-purpose cleaners, dishwasher detergents.

TOLUENE Exposure may cause liver, kidney and brain damage. It is also a reproductive toxin which can damage a developing fetus.

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 was scheduled to 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 Alkanolamines)

TURPENTINE This chemical can cause allergic sensitization, and kidney, bladder and central nervous system damage. It is an eye irritant. Found in specialty solvent cleaners, furniture polish and shoe products. A Common Hazardous Ingredients in Cleaning Products

XYLENE Significant neurotoxic effects, including loss of memory. High exposure can lead to loss of consciousness and even death. It may damage liver, kidneys and the developing fetus. It is a severe eye and moderate skin irritant. Used in some spot removers, floor polishes, ironing aids and other products.

XYLENE SULFONATE A surfactant made from xylene, a petrochemical, and sulfuric acid. Slow to biodegrade in the environment. Found in: Laundry products, all-purpose cleaners, dish detergent.