A Chemist’s Perspective on Chemicals

In a recent post, I was checking out whether Wee Cleaner was really non-toxic and discovered that although I was under the impression that it was all natural, it did indeed contain a number of chemical ingredients.  Then I segued into looking up ingredients with the Environmental Working Group’s Cosmetic Safety Database.

One of my readers wrote in to share some more insights about the chemical ingredients.  She works as a chemist in a lab, so it was great to gain her perspective.  There’s a radio station I listen to where the morning DJ’s always proclaim that they have the smartest listeners in the world.  I’m thinking I have some of the smartest blog readers!  Anyway, here’s what she had to say:

“It’s true that all chemical suppliers, and labs for that matter, are required to have MSDS’s on file for chemicals but while the idea is well meaning: to have anyone interested in safety be able to find information on a chemical, most MSDS’s now days are packed with legalese and meaningless warnings. In effort not to be sued, manufacturers have put every possible thing down for even the most harmless substances so that you really couldn’t tell apart something harmless from something that you need to watch out for even if you tried. If you would like an example read the MSDS on table salt (sodium chloride), or sea sand. You should apparently run screaming from the kitchen and the beach for fear of being exposed to such harmful substances. No one takes MSDS’s seriously, and they are pretty near useless, except for the lawyers.

About the issue of hydrogen peroxide, it’s actually a great and very safe cleaner! The reason why you have this contradictory information about it is because hydrogen peroxide is not very stable. When you buy Hydrogen peroxide from the supermarket it has a very short shelf life. It will spontaneously degrade into oxygen and water on standing, air and light just speed up the process. So while, yes, you should probably not drink hydrogen peroxide from the bottle, if you apply a little bit to your carpet, by the time it’s dry there won’t be any hydrogen peroxide there to get into contact with. Most of it probably reacts with (oxidizes) whatever stinky stuff your cat left behind to make less stinky stuff and the rest just turns into water and oxygen. Sounds great to me!

I think that’s why you should take these chemical safety scales with some skepticism. What does “safe” really mean?

Sodium laureth sulfate I’m not so sure about, I’ve seen it on my shampoo bottle so it’s probably not that bad, I’d be worried about my kitty eating some though, I would ask what percent composition it is before deciding to put it on my carpet. Maybe at this point I would just go out and buy a bottle of hydrogen peroxide to see if that works just as well as the cleaner.

Sorry for the rant, but there is always a lot of misleading information and witch hunts about how bad “chemicals” are. Even though everything is a chemical: water, air, or cyanide, weather or not it’s harmful just depends on how it acts around the environment and your body. Not how “natural” it is.”

Thanks for the insights Anastasia!

I didn’t know that there were MSDS sheets specific to each chemical and it was illuminating to learn that they list every possible risk to avoid litigation. I noticed the EWG Cosmetic Database also listed things such as tea tree oil in a way that made them sound hazardous.

I still do find that MSDS docs for cleaning products contain some interesting gems.  For example, Simple Green is labelled as “non-toxic”, but the MSDS lists butyl cellosolve, also known as 2-butoxyethanol, as one of the ingredients.  According to the National Institute for Occupational Health and Safety, http://www.cdc.gov/niosh/npg/npgd0070.html, symptoms of exposure include irritation eyes, skin, nose, throat; hemolysis, hematuria (blood in the urine); central nervous system depression, headache; vomiting” and target organs include: “Eyes, skin, respiratory system, central nervous system, hematopoietic system, blood, kidneys, liver, lymphoid system”.

I think I’ll pass on hemolysis (premature destruction of red blood cells) or the hematuria, even if the risk is low.  We bought some “Simple Green” thinking it was green, but now that bottle is sitting in the garage.