[Mitigation] Pollution from Domestic Cleaning Agents : An Alternative

No one can avoid exposure to toxic chemicals altogether, but it is possible to reduce it significantly.

How can we do this? As a first step, we should assess which cleaning products are really necessary. Next, we should also make sure to check the label on the back of the product to make sure the ingredients do not contain harmful chemicals or toxins that could potentially harm us and the environment. Make sure the ingredients of the cleaner are easily biodegradable and breakdown quickly in the wastewater treatment facilities. For this, it’s best to look for products that are 100% natural or all-natural, and certified by an independent institution like NEA, for Singapore’s case. Lastly, we tend to use more of the cleaning and or laundry products than strictly necessary, because using more product will ‘clean better’. However, this is not usually the case! We should stick to the directions of use on the label and thus this minimizes the amount of cleaning products ending up in wastewaters because the effect of cleaning will not be greater by using more cleaning liquid or laundry detergent. It is also important to check the labels of the products you use and follow the instructions to make sure you handle and store them in a safe way, also to minimise unnecessary exposure to the environment or the house.

Alternatively, we can make our own cleaning agents!

Do-It-Yourself Cleaning Agents

Worried about the potential VOCs and other chemical toxins inside store-bought domestic cleaning agents? Here are some recipes of cleaning agents you can make at home to clean safely and cheaply:

Basic sink cleanser — Combine ½ cup baking soda with six drops essential oil (such as lavender, rosemary, lemon, lime or orange). Rinse sink well with hot water. Sprinkle combination into the sink and pour ¼ cup vinegar over top. After the fizz settles, scrub with a damp sponge or cloth. Rinse again with hot water. (From The Naturally Clean Home, by Karyn Siegel-Maier.)

Oven cleanser — Put a heatproof dish filled with water in the oven. Turn on the heat to let the steam soften any baked-on grease. Once the oven is cool, apply a paste of equal parts salt, baking soda, and vinegar, and scrub. (From Super Natural Home, by Beth Greer.)

Bathroom mildew remover — Good ventilation helps prevent mildew and mould. When they do occur, make a spray with 2 cups of water and 1/4 teaspoon each of tea-tree and lavender oil. Shake first and spray on trouble spots. The oils break down the mildew so there’s no need to wipe it down. (From Green Interior Design, by Lori Dennis.)

Carpet shampoo — Mix 3 cups water, ¾ cup vegetable-based liquid soap, and 10 drops peppermint essential oil. Rub the foam into soiled areas with a damp sponge. Let dry thoroughly and then vacuum. (From The Naturally Clean Home.)

Laundry soap — Try “soap nuts” made from the dried fruit of the Chinese soapberry tree. Available in natural groceries and online, the reusable soap nuts come in a cotton sack that goes into the washing machine with clothes.

Dusting — Skip the furniture polishes. Instead, use a microfiber cloth. Made from synthetic fibres that are then split into hundreds of smaller microfibers, they capture dust more efficiently than regular rags. If necessary, a little olive oil makes a fine polishing agent.

All in all, we should be actively involved in our decision-making process and read all labels on cleaning supplies and household products before we buy them. Choose products that do not contain or have reduced amounts of VOCs, fragrances, irritants and flammable ingredients and try to avoid using air fresheners altogether. As a safer cleaning alternative, warm water and soap with a generous helping of lemon often will do the trick, especially at home. Baking soda is good for scrubbing. A mix of vinegar and water can clean glass. When using cleaning or household products, keep the area well ventilated by opening the windows and doors. Do note to also never use cleaning products in a small and enclosed space.

[Mitigation] Pollution from Domestic Cleaning Agents : International Countries’ Regulations

International Countries’ Regulations

United States of America

In the journal Science, De Gouw and others report that the amount of Volatile Organic Compounds or VOCs emitted from household and industrial products is 2 to 3 times higher than official US estimates suggest. The result is surprising as only approximately 5% of raw oil is turned into chemicals for consumer products, with 95% ending up as fuel (MacDonald et al, 2015).

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, more than 2.1 million janitors work in the US (U.S. BUREAU OF LABOR STATISTICS, 2020). About 6% of janitors experience workplace injury from chemical exposure brought about by domestic cleaning agents. Moreover, anyone in the building can breathe in the VOCs from these cleaning products. At levels of typical use, the risk of adverse health impacts from domestic cleaning products is pretty low. Still, reducing potential hazards is an integral part of chemical management safety. Certain chemicals may irritate skin, eyes, or throat. Some commercial-grade products may be hazardous in concentrated forms. Cleaning products enter the environment during the course of regular use by getting rinsed down the drain or evaporating into volatile compounds. Residue can linger on surfaces and cleaning tools.

The Environmental Protection Agency or EPA has also issued regulations limiting the volatile organic compound (VOC) concentration in various institutional and consumer cleaning products. Products that may contain regulated VOC’s include (but are not limited to) bathroom and tile cleaners, disinfectants and sanitizers, furniture cleaners, laundry starch and detergents, fabric refresher (linen spray), hair styling products, shaving gels and air fresheners (room spray).

United Kingdom

In the EU, there are different regulations to ensure the safety of domestic cleaning agents for household use. For example, the CLP Regulation, it is a regulation on classification, labelling and packaging of chemicals, regulating the way that chemicals and products containing them are labelled and packaged. If the product contains hazardous chemicals, it must be labelled with a pictogram and an explanation of what it means. This helps consumers to handle the product safely and gives advice on what to do in case of an accident.



McDonald, B.C., et al. (2018). Volatile chemical products emerging as largest petrochemical source of urban organic emissions. Science, [online] 359(6377), pp.760–764. Available at: https://science.sciencemag.org/content/359/6377/760.

U.S. BUREAU OF LABOR STATISTICS (2020). [online] Available at: https://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes372011.htm.


Pollution from Domestic Cleaning Agents : Environmental Impacts

Welcome back to our blog! Having understood what constitutes domestic cleaning agents and the chemicals commonly associated with them, we will be sharing more about how toxins in domestic cleaning agents harm the environment in this post.

Recall, nitrogen, phosphorus, ammonia and VOCs are present in domestic cleaning agents.

Aquatic pollution

When domestic cleaning agents are used, they are often rinsed down drains or flushed down toilets after the cleaning process. As these cleaning liquids head to the sewage, the nitrogen, phosphorus and ammonia present in them go down together. While it can be argued that wastewater is treated before being discharged to open water bodies, these three chemicals are NOT removed by the waste treatment process. This is very concerning as nitrogen, phosphorus and ammonia are dangerous water contaminants in large quantities (Davis, n.d.).

Harmful Algal Blooms (HAB)

The most prominent consequence of nitrogen, phosphorus and ammonia being washed into water bodies is eutrophication. Excess nitrogen, phosphorus and ammonia over-enrich the aquatic ecosystem with nutrients (Carpenter, 2005), thereby resulting in Harmful Algal Blooms (HAB). The occurrence of HAB poses a threat to the aquatic ecosystem as it causes oxygen depletion of surface waters, leading to massive fish kills. The release of toxins by algal death further pollutes the water and render it useless.


Air pollution

The emission of VOCs through the use of domestic cleaning agents pose a risk to human health as exposure to VOCs could lead to carcinogenicity, mutagenicity, teratogenicity, as well as the irritation of the eyes and nose (Ciccioli, 1993). This is especially concerning given that these VOCs is likely to concentrate within the household environment due to poor or inadequate ventilation. Indeed, the Environmental Protection Agency’s Total Exposure Assessment Methodology (TEAM) studies found that there are 3 to 5 times more common organic pollutants inside homes than outside (EPA, 2019).

In addition to human health, VOCs pose a risk to environmental health as well. VOCs are precursors to photochemical smog. When VOCs are mixed with nitrogen oxides (NOx ) and irradiated by ultraviolet (UV) light, a complex chain of reactions converts them into products generally indicated as photochemical pollutants (Ciccioli, 1993), creating a brown haze above places referred to as ‘smog’. Here is a chart to visualise the formation of smog (EPA, 2004):

The way forward

Given that the use of domestic cleaning agents poses a variety of environmental problems, there is a need for us to search for alternatives or employ ways to mitigate these problems. More on mitigation will be discussed in our next post!




Carpenter, S. R. (2005). Eutrophication of aquatic ecosystems: Bistability and soil phosphorus. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.0503959102

Ciccioli P. (1993) VOCs and air pollution. In: Bloemen H.J.T., Burn J. (eds) Chemistry and Analysis of Volatile Organic Compounds in the Environment. Springer, Dordrecht. https://doi-org.libproxy1.nus.edu.sg/10.1007/978-94-011-2152-1_3

Davis, J. (n.d.). How Does Household Cleaner Affect the Environment? https://homeguides.sfgate.com/household-cleaner-affect-environment-79335.html

EPA. (2019, August 1). What are volatile organic compounds (VOCs)? https://www.epa.gov/indoor-air-quality-iaq/what-are-volatile-organic-compounds-vocs

EPA. (2004, March). Photochemical smog: What it means for us. https://www.epa.sa.gov.au/files/8238_info_photosmog.pdf

Pollution from Domestic Cleaning Agents : The Big Picture

What are Domestic Cleaning Agents?

Domestic cleaning agents are effective at getting rid of the dirt at home, germs and other microscopic, harmful organisms. However, some of these domestic cleaning agents that are used to sanitize, whiten and wash clothing, surfaces, dishes and bedding are also harming our water and air, causing massive Environmental Pollution, especially indoor pollution, especially in our homes where we spend arguably our most time in.

The chemicals in many cleaners are common pollutants that contribute to smog, reduce the quality of drinking water and are toxic to animals.

Who are these ‘Chemical Culprits’?

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, phosphorus, nitrogen, ammonia and chemicals grouped under the term “Volatile Organic Compounds” or VOCs as the worst environmental hazards in domestic cleaning agents (US EPA, 2018).

According to the Canadian Labour Environmental Alliance Society, dishwasher detergents are approximately 30 to 40 per cent phosphorus. Moreover, ammonia is a multipurpose household cleaner that is found in many cleaning products that do everything from sanitizing and removing allergens. VOCs are found in a wide range of cleaning products. They whiten your clothes, remove oil from dishes and disinfect as bathroom cleaners, amongst other uses. Nitrogen is found in glass and surface cleaning products and even in floor cleaners as well (US EPA, 2019).

Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs)

Phosphorous – P
Ammonia – NH3
Nitrogen – N

Common domestic cleaning agent supplies containing VOCs and other toxic substances can include, but are not limited to (American Lung Association, 2020):

  • Aerosol spray products, including health, beauty and cleaning products;
  • Air fresheners;
  • Chlorine bleach;
  • Detergent and dishwashing liquid;
  • Dry cleaning chemicals;
  • Rug and upholstery cleaners;
  • Furniture and floor polish; and
  • Oven cleaners

Household cleaners, paints and perfumes have also become substantial sources of urban air pollution as strict controls on vehicles have reduced road traffic emissions, some scientists say.

Researchers in the US looked at levels of synthetic VOCs in roadside air in Los Angeles and found that as much came from industrial and household products refined from petroleum as from vehicle exhaust pipes.

The compounds are an important contributor to air pollution because when they waft into the atmosphere, they react with other chemicals to produce harmful ozone or fine particulate matter known as PM2.5. Ground-level ozone can trigger breathing problems by making the airways constrict, while fine airborne particles drive heart and lung disease.

Globally, the greatest source of volatile organic compounds are plants and trees, but the natural background levels are exacerbated by vapours released from hairsprays and perfumes; cleaning products and pesticides; paints and substances such as formaldehyde, which is used in glues, plywood and other building materials. Yet more synthetic VOCs come from burning fuels such as gas and wood (Sample, 2018).

The next post will discuss in detail how toxins in domestic cleaning agents harm the environment.


US EPA (2018). Sustainable Marketplace: Greener Products and Services | US EPA. [online] US EPA. Available at: https://www.epa.gov/greenerproducts [Accessed 5 Jan. 2019].

US EPA (2019). Nutrient Pollution | US EPA. [online] US EPA. Available at: https://www.epa.gov/nutrientpollution.

American Lung Association (2020). Cleaning Supplies and Household Chemicals | American Lung Association. [online] www.lung.org. Available at: https://www.lung.org/clean-air/at-home/indoor-air-pollutants/cleaning-supplies-household-chem.

Sample, I. (2018). Cleaning products a big source of urban air pollution, say scientists. [online] the Guardian. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2018/feb/15/cleaning-products-urban-pollution-scientists [Accessed 9 Nov. 2020].