Your home is not a hospital or cleanroom. Here’s what you should know

Hospitals need sterile conditions to ensure their primary purpose of healing is not compromised by surface or air-borne germs. Pharmaceutical cleanrooms need to preserve an environment free of contamination to ensure the formulations they produce are not harmed in any way. But does your home need a 100% sterile environment? Short answer: no. Homes need cleaning, not disinfecting.

Most daily-use cleaning products tout the advantages of their disinfecting properties and the disinfectants they contain. But this is not good news for you, the consumer. Disinfectants are chemicals used to destroy harmful microbes or to prevent microbial contamination. Hospitals, poultry and livestock facilities, abattoirs, sanitary plants, even some food manufacturing units use these chemicals to eradicate microbes in the environment that could otherwise affect the raison d’être of these places. But they use them with care. A lot of care. With supplies that facilitate that care and regulations that mandate that care.

Because these disinfectants are harmful to human health. And harmful to the environment too. These chemicals are often flammable, and even explosive. If accidentally mixed with the wrong chemicals, they react violently, producing toxic gases that can prove extremely fatal. And they always come in containers with various levels of hazard and toxicity markings. Because sometimes even the slightest contact with them can be lethal. And continued exposure to them can cause a variety of illnesses, from your everyday flu to respiratory illnesses to cardiac disorders to obesity to various forms of cancer.

All countries have guidelines and regulations in place to regulate the use of these chemicals and to ensure that the people handling them are aware and conscious of the extreme care and diligence required in handling them. And the people actually handling these chemicals do take that care and diligence because they know their very lives could be lost over simple mistakes.

What are these chemicals though? And why are they so toxic? Let us take a look at some of the most common constituents of chemical disinfectants.

Based on their composition, chemical disinfectants can broadly be categorized into Alcohols, Aldehydes, Chlorine Compounds, Iodine Compounds, Phenolics, Quaternary Ammonium Compounds, and Oxidising Agents.

Alcohols are mostly used for topical disinfection in healthcare and the most commonly used ones are isopropyl alcohol and ethyl alcohol. The most used Aldehydes are formaldehyde and gluteraldehyde, both broad-spectrum disinfectants. Chlorine Compounds are effective in protection against bacteria and non-enveloped viruses and fungi and at high concentrations are also effective against spores and are thus considered broad spectrum disinfectants. Chlorine Dioxide, Sodium Hypochlorite (Chlorine Bleach) and Calcium Hypochlorite are the most used Chlorine Compounds. Iodine compounds are also broad spectrum and effective against many bacteria, viruses and fungi. Iodine tinctures are also commonly used as antiseptic surface treatments. Phenolics are disinfectants derived from phenol (carbolic acid). Even at 5% concentration, they can kill all kinds of bacteria and viruses and fungi. Quaternary Ammonium Compounds are deodorising detergents especially useful against bacteria. Hydrogen Peroxide and Potassium Permanganate are among the most commonly used Oxidising Agents, possessed with extremely effective microbial properties. And then there are other chemicals like Ethylene Oxide and Chlorhexidine that are widely used as disinfectants because of the biocidal properties.

And they are all harmful to humans in a myriad number of ways. Alcohols are highly flammable and can spontaneously ignite in the vicinity of a flame, or even a spark. Ethylene oxide is a highly flammable and explosive gas. Formaldehyde too is highly flammable in gas form, mixing explosively with the air. Hydrogen peroxide is a strong oxidising agent that can cause an instant fire, if accidentally spilled on a peroxide solution. Chemicals can mix with each other in lethal fashion too. Bleaching solutions, when mixed with acidic cleaning solutions, can release chlorine, exposure to which in high concentrations can be immediately fatal. Formaldehyde and potassium permanganate, if mixed together, can cause an actual explosion.

And the health hazards are far too numerous to fully list here. Shortness of breath. Irritation of the eyes. Skin irritation. Asthma. Respiratory illnesses. Allergies. And a whole lot more.

People who work in hospitals and cleanrooms and food processing units and other places where chemical disinfectants are necessarily used have been made aware of these hazards and sensitised to them through reinforced regulation and workplace best practises over time. But what about you in your safe homes? Do you take the care you need to take around these chemicals? Because these very same chemicals are present in your household cleaners and cosmetics and soaps and dishwashers and air fresheners and pretty much anything you use at home to clean with.

And they have even caused deaths. In South Korea for example, in 2013 they reported 78 deaths due to lung cancers caused by the humidifers that nearly 40% of South Koreans use at home.

And these “cleaning solutions” aren’t even doing that great a job of cleaning. Because they are disinfecting, not cleaning. And in disinfecting, they are killing off all the microbes, including the good ones you need to maintain a healthy environment at home.

Going green is not just an empty buzzword. It is a health and environmental imperative. You need to adopt cleaner cleaning solutions and move away from chemical-laden products that are actually causing you harm. Switch to our ThinkSafe range of cleaning products instead.

Post by Natasha Kamat

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