Child's IQ

And Homemaking

Cleaning Products and your child's IQ, David Steinman, Parenting

Cleaning Products and your child's IQ, David Steinman, Parenting

Have you ever noticed how you can smell your household cleaning products even when they are tightly sealed? Or perhaps at work you smell the fumes of a copy machine?

Those fumes are volatile organic compounds (VOCs), carbon-based chemicals which form gases at room temperature. A follow-up study of children in Canada shows exposure to these chemicals during pregnancy reduces IQ in developing fetuses.

VOCs are commonly found in homes and offices through the cleaning products we use. The most common VOCs include phthalates, butyl cellosolve (a chemical found Simple Green’s All Purpose Cleaner), formaldehyde (commonly found in laundry detergents), toluene, acetone and xylene. Thousands of VOCs are known to cause neurological and organ damage, cancer and chemical sensitivities. Each has its own toxic action on the body. Pregnant women are especially vulnerable, as exposure to these chemicals in the workplace can affect their fetuses.

Sources of VOCs can be found in the home, from linoleum flooring, fiberglass, plastic shower liners, tile cleaners and paints to air fresheners, hair sprays and cosmetics; VOCs are released from plastics, carpets, new furniture and cabinetry containing urea-formaldehyde resins.

In one study of VOCs, the Consumer Product Safety Commission found that while outdoor air at sample sites contained fewer than 10 of these chemical toxins, indoor air at those same locations contained an average of 150 VOCs.

A typical home might contain VOC levels as low as 50 parts per billion. But levels vary within homes depending on where cleaning products are used or stored.

In a recent report by CBC Marketplace, toxicologist Shawn Ellis, President of Building Health Centre Inc, went to various people’s homes to test the indoor air quality in the areas where their cleaning products were stored. Ellis tested three products for their their VOC concentrations: Pledge, Clorox Wipes and Lysol Disinfecting Spray.

Measuring the ambient air around these products, Ellis found that the VOC levels increased significantly depending on where the products were stored. Pledge registered 273 parts per billion (ppb); Clorox wipes came in at more than 1,000 ppb. But the worst offender was Lysol Disinfectant Spray, which registered almost 1,200 parts per million (ppm), roughly 1,000 times higher than the Clorox Wipes and equal to 1,200 drops in an olympic-size pool (VOC levels exceeding 500 ppb can lead to health risks for people with chemical sensitivities.). VOC levels over 500 ppb could be a problem for people with chemical sensitivities, says the report.

At the Hospital for Sick Children, an affliate of the University of Toronto, Canadian, scientists have begun to see changes in a whole new generation of petro-babies—children with lower IQs, an inability to cope with stress, and prone to aberrant social behavior.

In the journal Neurotoxicology and Teratology, researchers compared the cognitive and behavioral functioning of 33 three- to seven-year olds whose mothers were exposed to organic solvents during pregnancy with a group of 28 children with no previous exposure. The children were matched on age, gender, parental socioeconomic status and ethnicity.

Participants were recruited by the Hospital for Sick Children’s Sickkids’ Motherisk Program, which researches and counsels expectant mothers on reproductive risks, maternal disease, drug safety and chemical exposure during pregnancy. Scientists comcompared a group of 64 children between the ages of three and nine. Half of the group was born to mothers who had worked in occupations where solvents were present and the other half to mothers who had experienced no such contact with these chemicals during pregnancy. Women in the former group reported contact with one or more of 78 different petro-solvents from between one to 40 hours each week for anywhere from eight to 40 weeks of their pregnancies. Seventeen different occupations were identified among the participants, including painters, photo lab workers, science teachers, lab technicians, embalmers and hair stylists, all of whom wore masks and gloves when working with hazardous chemicals. In spite of these precautions, however, their contact with solvents was measureable years later and appeared to have an effect on the developing brains of their unborn children.

The study indicated that as levels of solvent exposure increased, children’s language and motor skills decreased. “Significantly more exposed children were rated as having mild to severe problem behaviors. The findings suggest that maternal occupational exposure to organic solvents during pregnancy is associated with poorer outcomes in selective aspects of cognitive and neuromotor functioning in offspring.”

According to researchers, children born to the solvent-exposed group scored lower in tests measuring short-term auditory memory, general verbal information and attention. Even when their test scores were within normal ranges, exposed children demonstrated a reduced ability to recall sentences. Furthermore, the researchers noted an increase in hyperactivity among members of the exposed group. “In utero exposure to organic solvents is associated with poorer performance on some specific subtle measures of neurocognitive function, language, and behavior,” they concluded. “Reducing exposure in pregnancy is merited until more refined risk assessment is possible.”

The study’s authors classified the differences between the two groups of children as “subtle” and noted that their research did not attempt to determine how much exposure and to what specific solvents caused which kinds of impairment. Instead, they stated that the project was notable for being the first to establish a cause and effect relationship between solvents and brain damage in fetuses. The results indicated an urgent need for further study.

“As one of the most advanced countries in the world, how can we allow these chemicals to enter our households without the appropriate testing to see that they’re safe?” said Dr Gideon Koren, a pediatrician at the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto and co-author of the study.

Koren says young children are especially vulnerable since they put everything in their mouths and virtually live on the floor. Young kids are also at risk because they are still developing basic body systems: Their brains, internal organs, respiratory and immune systems are not fully developed until adolescence.


The question every health conscious parent must ask is whether there is a separation between who we are, biochemically, and that with which we surround ourselves? Although these studies were done among pregnant women exposed to VOCs in the workplace, pregnant homemakers using less protection could experience near constant exposure to chemical toxins. Plus, any additional children with them could be breathing in even more VOCs.

So-called “natural” cleaning products don’t necessarily deliver a safer cleaning experience. Some brands try to appear more environmentally safe but create products with ingredients known to contain toxic chemicals such as 1,4-dioxane, a known male breast cancer causing agent; many laundry detergents contain formaldehyde, a cancer causing allergen and cause of asthma. The brand Simple Green, for instance, contains butyl cellosolve, a VOC linked to central nervous system depression. Other brands may use words like “planet” but rely on petrochemical ingredients, all of which contribute to higher VOC levels that can impact developing fetuses with high enough exposure.

Earth Friendly Products’ ECOS Laundry Detergent was tested head to head against competitors such as Tide, Gain and Purex. ECOS was found to contain no 1,4 Dioxane. The other brands, some with eco-friendly names, contain 1,4 Dioxane levels as high as 55 parts per million.

When the Healthy Living Foundation tested Earth Friendly Products’ Parsley Plus All Purpose Cleaner against Simple Green’s All-Purpose Cleaner in a chamber test, the Parsley Plus emitted only one-tenth of the VOCs of the other product with “Green” in its name. As for performance testing, Earth Friendly Products’ Wave Automatic Dishwashing Detergent compared favorably to Cascade’s Dishwasher Detergent but with far less corrosiveness, alkaline, or VOC levels.

Colorful plastic containers, powders and liquids with enticing fragrances can be alluring to consumers but in fact shed and emit toxic chemicals in higher amounts than products without dyes or fragrances. Earth Friendly Products never colors their products or containers and uses organic essential oils for scent, significantly reducing VOC-producing petrochemicals.

REFERENCES “CBC MARKETPLACE: Household Cleaners: If you can’t pronounce it, should you use it?” Reporter: Wendy Mesley; Producer: Gaelyne Leslie; Researcher: Louisa Jaslow Viewed at: . Lazlo-Baker, D, et al. 2004 Child neurodevelopmental outcome and maternal occupational exposure to solvents. Arch Pediatr Adolesc Med; 158:956-961. Till, C, et al. 2001 Prenatal exposure to organic solvents and child neurobehavioral performance. Neurotoxicol Teratol; 23(3):235-245.
comments powered by Disqus