I'd almost convinced myself that the 4-in.-high dust bunnies lurking in my house were good for my baby. "She'll grow up accustomed to dirt and won't develop allergies," I reasoned illogically. But in truth, my house was filthy. I didn't have the money to hire someone to clean it, and I was sure I didn't have time to clean it myself. But 10 months after my daughter's birth, as she progressed from immobile infant to roving, teething toddler, I ran out of excuses. The image of her actually confronting those unsanitary bunnies was enough to get me to Costco.
With $158.30 worth of household cleaners in my shopping bags, I was eager to begin. But after I unloaded the products--most of them familiar, Donna Reed--ish brands of my youth--I first sat down to study their labels. Along with my new dust-bunny awareness, I've become hyperconscious of anything else my baby might potentially mouth or chew.
But where were the ingredients? There were scary words on the labels--WARNING and DANGER! KEEP OUT OF REACH OF CHILDREN--and some nasty things I recognized (bleach, ammonia, the generic word disinfectant). With cereal boxes detailing everything from trans fats to soluble fiber, I thought there would be exhaustive lists of everything in those bottles and sprays. But there weren't. If I didn't rinse the bathtub thoroughly, what kind of residue would my daughter's bottom be resting on?
Surely, Mr. Clean could tell me more. I logged on to Procter & Gamble's website, where I found tips about how to use the products but still no list of ingredients. It turns out that companies aren't required to tell us what makes their products work; there is no government agency that regulates what's in soap-scum spray and other useful items. Digging deep into the site, I did find Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDSes) for many P&G products, which are posted by law in factories where they're made, listing information about a cleaner's chemical components and known health effects. The government also has a website--householdproducts.nlm.nih.gov--with a database of household-cleaner MSDSes from a range of manufacturers.
But the MSDSes told me more about what we don't know than about what we do. Take Mr. Clean's Ultra All Purpose Cleaner, with ingredients like "surfactant (unspecified)." With another Mr. Clean ingredient, the MSDS informed me that there is "no information about the [product's] potential for carcinogenicity." I was able to follow the trail of one chemical, diethylene glycol monobutyl ether, which evidently appears in everything from brake fluid to hair dye. Although the MSDS measures workplace exposure, which can be far greater than the amount one would encounter at home, the Hazardous Substances Data Bank toxnet.nlm.nih.gov warned that "results of limited repeated dose oral work reported suggests that material may be rather toxic when inhaled or absorbed through skin in repeated small doses." Eek. And that's just one ingredient.