03.Chemical biodegradability and safety
Being plant-based doesn’t make a cleaner inherently safer. Plant-based substances are among some of the most dangerous chemicals. As a rule of thumb, less hazardous products are milder but require more physical effort when used to clean.
In terms of health and safety, biodegradability is key to preventing the build-up of chemicals in the environment and our bodies, according to toxicologist Hugh Scobie. Of the cleaners we looked at, the following claim to be biodegradable according to the Australian standard:
Many multipurpose cleaners claim to have a biodegradable surfactant (the active ingredients that help break down grease and oil). These are the most likely ingredients in a multipurpose cleaner to cause damage to our health or environment.
Products that claim they’re “readily biodegradable according to AS [Australian Standard] 4351” must ensure the product will break down in the environment within a certain time frame. But it’s easy to get caught out, as most substances will biodegrade eventually and products may claim they’re biodegradable without being readily so. You can’t know for sure how long a product claiming to be biodegradable will take to break down, nor how much.
How safe is my household cleaner?
To look at chemical safety, we asked toxicologist Dr Ian Musgrave to assess the chemical content of the 12 multipurpose cleaners in our investigation, based on the information supplied on the label or in the safety data sheets from the manufacturer. Dr Musgrave found most chemicals used have low toxicity, and for chemicals that are toxic, toxicity is low at the concentrations used in these cleaners, if used as directed.
Toxicity is defined by toxicologists as having no observed adverse effect, with the level of toxicity depending on the concentration of a substance and how it is used.
One of the cleaners in the investigation, Earth Choice, claimed to be “non-toxic”. Despite the toxicologists’ definition, there’s no agreed standard or definition for the term non-toxic. The ACCC says the common understanding of the term is that it “would not be poisonous or harmful to a person if they ingested it”. Given the lack of testing of many chemicals, proving such a claim is difficult.
Musgrave argues that alkyl polyglycosides, the active ingredient in the Earth Choice cleaner, “probably aren’t very toxic”, but points out he isn’t aware of any toxicity tests having been done on these chemicals. If used as directed it’s very unlikely the ingredients in the Earth Choice cleaner would have an adverse effect, but Musgrave would not guarantee the safety of drinking a whole bottle, as an inquisitive child might attempt to do. So in practice, "non-toxic" claims appear to be meaningless.
The upshot is that you should keep all household cleaning products safely out of reach of small children - including those that claim to be non-toxic.