Understanding Chemicals in Cleaning Products

When trying to figure out if chemicals in cleaning products are toxic or non toxic, it is unfortunately not enough to 'pick out' a familiar part of the entire name and declare it toxic or safe based on that alone. For example, take a look at the following groupings of simple chemical names:

Dihydrogen oxide - H2O - water - universal solvent - completely safe, unless you can't swim

Dihydrogen dioxide - H2O2 - hydrogen peroxide - Used in the home as a topical disinfectant and a mild household cleaner. Usual household concentrations are rarely immediately toxic when used for other things, but can produce toxic effects with long term use

Chlorine - Cl - a powerful disinfectant used to treat water. Depending on the concentration, chlorine vapors can result in anything from minor irritation to death (rare)

Sodium chloride - NaCl - Salt, which is found naturally in many things that we eat, and can act as a preservative

Potassium chloride - KCl - used to make fertilizer, as an intravenous to replenish potassium in the human body, and as the component of a lethal injection that causes heart failure

As you can see, very similar and familiar names create quite different chemicals with quite different activity depending on how they are combined. To determine if chemicals in cleaning products are safe requires more than just looking for something familiar in the name.

A really good example of how this can lead to the wrong conclusion is the case of the Mr. Clean Magic Eraser. There has been much talk of chemical burns and formaldehyde in the product because of the name... Formaldehyde-melamine-sodium bisulfite copolymer. In fact, the magic eraser doesn't work as a chemical - it works as a very fine abrasive. It is possible to get nasty skin 'burns' from using it, but these are abrasion burns (like rug burns), not chemical burns.

Knowing the whole story on a chemical name will prevent you from getting carried away by the latest scare and allow you to wisely identify if a product is 'dangerous/toxic' or simply 'handle with care - you could hurt yourself'. To find out about any immediate dangers from a product, read the warning label on the container.

Whenever you hear about a scare concerning chemicals in cleaning products, especially if it comes over the internet, it is always wise to check both the Chemical Scorecard and one of the the more reliable urban myth researchers - www.Snopes.com


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