Intern Perspective: Toxic chemicals in our homes, The pollution we can control

During Summer 2016, the Community Engagement team of the MADRES Environmental Health Disparities Center at USC began to host public health interns from Cal State LA. In response to a request that came from community groups in the LA area, interns began their work developing content and implementing workshops for local community groups around the theme of toxic chemicals in the homes. After conducting the first workshop in the series, interns Andrea Calderon and Giovanna Manson-Hing reflect upon their experience below. 

Every day people are exposed to hidden toxins whether it be at school, at work or even at home. Pollution is all around us and most times we can’t control it, but sometimes we can. One of the many ways we can control the pollution in our homes is through awareness of toxic chemicals found in cleaning products. Whether you are cleaning once a day or once a week, it is important to know what common chemicals found in products are harmful to you and your family. Chlorine, ammonia, sodium hydroxide, 2-butoxyethanol, PERC, triclosan, and added fragrance are just some of the many chemicals that have been found to cause short-term and long-term health effects. Short-term symptoms include skin irritations, sore throat, dizziness, and loss of coordination. Studies have shown that exposing yourself to these harmful toxins over the years may lead to chronic bronchitis, liver and kidney damage, asthma, reduced sperm counts, birth defects and even cancer. Who is vulnerable to these damaging health effects? Everyone at home, especially pregnant women and children.

Raffle basket of green cleaning products.

Many of these harmful chemicals are not listed on the back of the cleaning products because it is not federally regulated. The Toxic Chemicals in Our Homes workshop is designed to provide the knowledge and awareness to the community about the potential health effects linked to commonly used cleaning products at home. The workshop also teaches greener alternatives through DIY product recipes which include multipurpose cleaners, furniture polish, laundry detergent, and more.

With resources from the Environmental Health Centers at USC, our first successful workshop took place on August 3 at Villa Esperanza in Los Angeles. Residents of this low-income apartment complex primarily spoke Spanish and were very interested in the information.  We facilitated the workshop in collaboration with community leaders from Esperanza Community Housing Corporation.

Workshop participants making a “green” all-purpose cleaning product.

Workshop presenters: Andrea Calderon (L) and Giovanna Manson-Hing (R)

From the 20 participants, we discovered that many of them used common household cleaning products like Windex, Pledge, Clorox Bleach, and a variety of air fresheners; all found to have chemicals with harmful health effects. When asked what symptoms they experienced while cleaning at home, many replied that they experience headaches, loss of coordination, skin irritations and respiratory effects. We then were able to explain, that these symptoms experienced were short-term but could eventually develop into long-term health effects.

After all the information was presented, we provided recipe cards to each participant so that they could make take home samples of a toxic free all-purpose cleaner. As an incentive for their presence and participation, we raffled a Go Green Basket filled with recipe cards and already made furniture polish, multi-purpose cleaner, and laundry detergent. We left with a feeling of motivation to continue our work because it was clear that the majority of our participants had limited knowledge of the potential health effects linked to cleaning products that they use in their homes on a daily basis.

By Andrea Calderon and Giovanna Manson-Hing