Our bodies absorb toxins either through the skin, by swallowing or by breathing them in. Different chemicals and different degrees of exposure produce different effects on the body. These effects can range from acute poisoning through to chronic, long-term or delayed effects. Acute effects occur when someone absorbs or swallows or inhales a poisonous substance such as kerosene, or bleach. Acute poisoning is very obvious with symptoms occurring almost immediately. Sometimes the effects of the toxins are less obvious and result in symptoms such as skin rashes, headaches and breathing difficulties. These symptoms may be short lived or chronic. They may recur when the person comes in contact with the chemical again - often more severe with repeated contact. Some chemicals accumulate in our body.
Chronic effects of toxic household cleaning products are often quite subtle and difficult to link to the chemical exposure. Symptoms may include migraine, depression, giddiness, nausea, or high blood pressure.
Long-term or delayed health effects of household products tend to fall under three categories: carcinogens, reproductive toxins, and endocrine disrupting chemicals.
A carcinogen is a substance that causes cancer. A carcinogenic material is one that is known to cause cancer. A known human carcinogen means that there is sufficient evidence of a cause and effect relationship between exposure to the material and cancer in humans. Carcinogens cause cancer by altering or damaging cell DNA. The DNA damage can then lead to the uncontrolled cell growth that is known as cancer.
There are a number of carcinogens in common household products. We do not need to be exposed to these chemicals. They can have potentially destructive health consequences. These substances may be in small amounts, but over time, the cumulative effect can lead to cancer.
Chemical reproductive toxins are chemicals that affect reproductive capability and include the following four general categories:
- Mutagens. Mutagens are chemicals that may cause a change in the genetic material of a cell.
- Teratogens. Teratogens are chemicals that may affect the viability or cause physical or metabolic defects in the developing embryo or foetus when a pregnant female is exposed to the chemical.
- Sterility/Infertility. Chemicals that may affect female or male fertility.
- Lactation. Chemicals that may be transferred from the mother to the baby through the breast milk and cause adverse health effects in the baby.
Fortunately there are not many reproductive toxins found in household products, but there are some. One such chemical, 2-butoxyethanol, appears in a number of spray cleaners, window cleaners and other products.
An endocrine-disruptor is a chemical, or mixture that alters the function of the endocrine system ie in its production, release, transport, metabolism, binding, action or elimination of natural hormones in the body, and consequently causes adverse health effects. These chemicals are chemically similar to human hormones and sometimes they increase their effect with unpredictable results.
Many household cleaning products we use everyday contain endocrine-disrupting chemicals. One of the largest group of endocrine disruptor chemicals (EDCs) known as nonyl phenols and their ethoxylates are in many cleaning products.
Toxic chemicals can also affect our immune system. One class of immune disorders is 'hypersensitivity' reactions, or allergic reactions, such as asthma, hay fever, and food allergies, some of which may be minor, others fatal. As early as 1984, the US National Toxicology Program observed that chemical damage to the immune system could result in 'hypersensitivity or allergy' to specific chemicals or to chemicals in general. Damage to the immune system can have far-reaching consequences for an individual, leaving him or her vulnerable to attack by bacteria and viruses, at heightened risk of cancer, and even predisposed to develop HIV/AIDS