Harsh Chemicals in Your Laundry

When my daughter, Hailey, was 2 years old, we spent many nights listening to her cough so hard she started to sound out of breath.  It was the winter so we thought it was a bad virus at first, but when it persisted we became concerned.  We brought her to her pediatrician and described her nightly coughing fits, and he told us she had asthma. She was put on a medication for allergies and asthma, and we were given steroids to be used in a nebulizer. Wow. What just happened?

My daughter is very sensitive and tends to experience every side effect possible, so I was a little alarmed by this new and sudden medication regimen.  I respect the use of medicine in health care, but I am always cautious when it’s not addressing the root cause of the issue, and I felt like this was one of those times.

I started to research and read that there are many household toxins that can be inducing and/or contributing to a child’s respiratory ailments.  I was a bit skeptical when I found that the most basic household products, such as my laundry detergent, could be causing my daughters respiratory problems.  It’s not sprayed in the air, so how could this be such an irritant that it could cause my daughter to cough so bad that she needed steroids to open her airways? Then I was horrified when I read about the ingredients in such products and the dangers associated.  Common sense told me that Clorox bleach is a potentially dangerous irritant, but I never would have thought the same of my basic laundry soap.

You know those pretty scents you love to smell coming from your laundry room? Well the artificial fragrances are made from petroleum and are linked to allergies and irritation.  Many laundry detergents also use Ethanol, which is linked to damage to the lungs, amongst other health problems–absolutely horrifying. You can find anything you want on the internet, good or bad, so I made sure my research was always through valid sources, including a government website—the Environmental Protection Agency. It doesn’t get anymore legit than that. If the EPA is telling me that bleach is a registered pesticide, and I keep my children away from that when outdoors, I know I don’t want it introduced inside my home.

That very day I went and bought an organic laundry detergent free of artificial fragrances and dangerous irritants. I used a little drop of lavender essential oil to get that nice scent I can’t go without. I started washing everyone’s clothes and linens in it until everything was safe.  At the same time, my daughter had already been on her steroid and anti-histamine regimen.  While we did see a drastic decrease in her coughing fits/breathing episodes, behavior changes including hyperactivity, anxiety and restlessness came with it. Now it was time to put it to the test. I slowly weaned her off all of her medications, and we still had a cough-free Hailey. If she caught a cold, we would see a few breathing episodes, but they were few and far between and nothing compared to the nightly hacking she had been enduring.

As a bonus, as soon as she got off all of those medications that were merely putting a Band-Aid on the problem, she resumed her typical demeanor as well.  As a second unintentional test, upon accidental re-exposure to a basic laundry product, she immediately began coughing at night again.  I never thought about the impact of what chemicals she was exposed to at night when she was sleeping, but it made sense, since she always pulls her blankets up to her face and buries her face in her pillow.

I had so much guilt for what I had caused her, but it was not my fault.  Cleaning products have changed drastically from the baking soda using days of our grandmas.  And now with all the large conglomerates in competition with one another, a quick, inexpensive way to make a cleaning product is to pack a bunch of harsh chemicals into the recipe. They work, they clean, but they also work on our systems to break them down.  I used to feel a certain amount of guilt in passing this information on to the unsuspecting mom, but not anymore.  As moms, we should support each other by sharing our knowledge.  Not one of us knows everything, but if we all unite to exchange information we are a wealth of knowledge amongst us. I don’t judge moms for the products they use, because I was once there. I didn’t know. But now I do, and my children’s health is much better off because of it.

How do your products stack up?

Visit the Environmental Working Group to get a score based on toxicity. They tested more than 600 brands of laundry detergents and additives, and give an easy-to-digest score of A through F to rank them. You can also search for products by name, if you want to see how the items in your laundry room add up, or by ranking if you need to find an alternative product to what you are using now.

You can also find a range of green, eco-friendly and non-toxic laundry alternatives at Mom’s Milk Boutique.

Michele Ogniewski is a part-time social worker and full-time mom to 3 children.  She lives and writes in Saratoga Springs, NY.

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