Toxic Household Cleaners May Affect Fertility

If you’re looking for a reason to skip housecleaning, how’s this: The chemicals in many common cleaners may have toxic effects on fertility. Studies show exposure by pregnant women to chemicals in household products may adversely affect fertility and fetal development. Now Congress is reconsidering whether to modernize the Toxic Substance Control Act, which hasn't been updated in 35 years. “The science isn’t black and white, but there’s enough evidence out there for us to be really concerned about the effect these chemicals are having on our reproductive processes,” says Alexandra Gorman Scranton, director of science and research at Women's Voices for the Earth.

Compounding the problem is the lack of labeling standards. “Just because a product says 'all-natural' or 'biodegradable' doesn’t mean it’s safe,” Scranton says.


Synthetic fragrances in cleaning products, such as laundry detergents, are often bonded by chemicals call phthalates. “The manufacturers want you to smell the fragrance when you open the box, when you use the product, and then later when you smell the clothes,” says Martin Wolf, director of product and environmental technology at Seventh Generation, a company that creates nontoxic and earth-friendly cleansers. “Fragrances in nature disperse quickly; [phthalates] bond the fragrance to the clothing so you keep smelling it.” Wolf adds that air-freshening products of all varieties are also worth avoiding. Natural odor-removers such as baking soda and fresh air are good alternatives.

Petroleum-based surfactants

Another group of chemicals, alkyl phenoxy ethoxylates (APEs), are lesser known, but still quite suspicious. These are surfactants, or agents that cause water surface tension to break more easily, and they’re common in laundry detergents and fabric softeners. In animal studies, APEs have been associated with reduced sperm count and testicular size. Because they’re not readily biodegradable, APEs enter the water system after they’re washed out of your laundry. And while the effect on humans is not yet proven, it’s worth noting that one member of the APE family of chemicals, nonoxyl-9, is used as a spermicide.


The solvents found in many glass cleaners, carpet cleaners, hard-surface cleaners, and oven cleaners contain EGBE, or 2-butoxyethanol, which evidence links to fertility problems in lab animals. “What people don’t consider is that a solvent that tells you it cuts through grease is also something that easily gets through the skin and into the body,” says Devra Lee Davis, M.P.H., director of the Center of Environmental Oncology at the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute and professor of epidemiology at the Graduate School of Public Health. "Studies in China, where fertility is very closely monitored, show links to decreased fertility in women with high exposure to these chemicals."

Article Reviewed: July 11, 2012
Copyright © 2011 CitiHealth
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