GELLERMAN: You're listening to an encore edition of Living on Earth, I'm Bruce Gellerman.
Many of the things we use to wash bathrooms, unblock drains, and make ovens spic and span contain toxic ingredients. Lurking underneath many a kitchen cabinet are chemicals hazardous to your health. For professional cleaners - many of whom are women, and many of them immigrants - daily, repeated exposure can make them sick.
There are safer alternatives. Clean and green are the new watch-words for many household products advertised on TV these days, but getting the word out to non-English speaking workers can be difficult. That's where a house-cleaning coop in Boston comes in, as Catherine Elton reports.
[SOUND OF WOMEN SPEAKING IN PORTUGESE]
ELTON: In the basement office of the community organization the Brazilian Women's Group, several Brazilian housecleaners sit around tables and discuss the agenda for an upcoming meeting. The women are part of Vida Verde, a new green cleaning cooperative that began last December.
Monica Chianelli, a housecleaner and the coop's coordinator, helped launch Vida Verde. She says housecleaning is the number one occupation for the women of Massachusetts's large Brazilian immigrant community.
CHIANELLI: It's because the flexibility of the hours and the money, the payment is good.
ELTON: But along with those benefits, coop member Carla de Castro says, came some problems.
CASTRO: I felt a headache all day long and dizzy, and the end of the day you can't smell anything because you just lost your sensitivity to smell. I can feel better if I stop to use. But I know if I continue to use for months and years, I know it's going to make me feel very sick.
ELTON: Castro wasn't the only one feeling this way. Monica Chianelli worked with immigrant activists, interviewing hundreds of Brazilian housecleaners. She heard many complaints like these and about respiratory problems, nose bleeds, fainting and skin rashes. Some of the women said they felt so bad they considered quitting the business.
So Chianelli and the activists started promoting green cleaning products. Their work caught the attention of epidemiologist David Gute of Tufts University. When he received a grant from the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health to study immigrant occupational health issues, a chunk of it went to jumpstart the Vida Verde Cooperative.
GUTE: What we hope to get is a group of coop members who will take seriously the responsibilities of protecting their own health and also protecting, obviously, the environmental heath of the clients homes in which they work. I think that there will be a greater sense of control in their own lives and businesses as a result of this.
ELTON: Research shows there's a higher incidence of asthma among professional cleaners as compared to other workers. And other studies examine indoor air pollutants that could affect human health. A four-year study recently completed at the University of California Berkeley looked at whether routine use of common cleaning products and air fresheners affect indoor air quality. Researchers studied solvents called glycol ethers ? a toxic air contaminant and common ingredient in cleaning products. They also looked at other solvents called terpines. They're the seemingly innocuous ingredients which give products lemon or pine scent. But terpines can create dangerous formaldehyde when they mix with ozone found in indoor air.
William Nazaroff was the lead scientist on the Berkeley study.
NAZAROFF: What we found was that the levels of exposure, both to glycol ethers and to secondary pollutants from terpine use, could be high enough to warrant further attention and some concern, especially under scenarios where high amounts of the products are being used in spaces that are small and not very well-ventilated.
ELTON: But Nazaroff is quick to point out there is still a lot that hasn't been proven about the relationship between these toxic air contaminants and the health problems of housecleaners.
NAZAROFF: At this point we're not able to connect the dots to say that the chemical exposures are, in fact, the reason that occupational asthma is elevated in this group. But more work is going to have to be done to try to fill in the gap between those two end points.
ELTON: And without that epidemiological data to prove a connection, Tufts' David Gute says not much can be done to force a change in the formulations of the products.
GUTE: There has always been this uneasy tension in the regulatory community about when a chemical is safe to use. The prevailing wisdom has usually been that a chemical is safe until proven guilty. The vast majority of chemicals, either newly developed or new combinations, are not screened in any meaningful way prior to release.
ELTON: Vida Verde coop members aren't the only ones unwilling to wait for science and government regulations to catch up with their concerns. The demand for natural home-cleaning products has taken off recently. And several states now require janitors clean schools and other public buildings with products that meet the standards of the nonprofit certifying company Green Seal. Currently, there is no certification standard for home cleaning products. But Green Seal expects to start certifying these products, too in the coming months.
Members of the Vida Verde Coop, however, opted for another approach.
[SOUND OF FILLING BOTTLES]
ELTON:On a recent morning, Monica Chianelli and another coop member make their own natural cleaning products. Members take turns and mix enough for others to use when they clean.
CHIANELLI: We made Amazing, now we are going to make Magic. Six cups of water and six cups of vinegar.
ELTON: They use recycled plastic bottles to store the products, and put on Vida Verde labels to identify them. And then they're ready to use them in their clients' homes.
[SOUND OF MONICA CLEANING]
ELTON: In a large Victorian house outside of Boston, Monica Chianelli starts to clean in the kitchen.
CHIANELLI: First I used Fantastick that is a product we made with soap and borax. After that to rinse I use Amazing that is something with water and vinegar. Because vinegar dissolves the soapy films.
ELTON: Homeowner Katrin Kaufer says she is happy with the results.
KAUFER: I have young children. I'm glad that they are not exposed to any chemicals in the house. It's good for our family and the environment as a whole. I don't have any reason not to do it.
ELTON: Members of Vida Verde say that since they switched products their health problems have disappeared. And Coop members are hoping to convince more housecleaners to change the way they clean. They're making presentations to housecleaners around Massachusetts to show them how to make their own natural products---and why.
For Living on Earth, I'm Catherine Elton in Boston.
[SOUND OF CLEANING AND SPRAYS]