Q&A: Pierce County Health Department specialist talks household cleaner safety

Following initial reports that a carpet cleaning product may have been responsible for the death of a pet dog and bird at a Lakewood home recently, many readers called The News Tribune to ask about the allegedly harmful cleaner.

Investigation by the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department was not able to confirm what killed the animals, but Troy Rowan with the Health Department spoke with The News Tribune recently about general safety information consumers can look for when using cleaning chemicals.

The environmental health specialist said the companies that make the products are able to provide a lot of information about what’s in a cleaner and how to properly use it. He also said less-toxic alternatives, such as vinegar solutions, can be good options for household cleaning.

Q: Are there particular brands or realms of cleaning products people should avoid?

A: There’s a variety of cleaners out there on the market. The best thing I direct folks to do is really take the time and look at the product label. A lot of times they can identify key words on the label, like “warning,” “dangerous.” Those usually indicate that they are hazardous materials.

Q: If a product is labeled “dangerous,” should homeowners avoid it entirely, or just pay special attention to instructions?

A: It’s about using it properly. Oftentimes, labels will provide specific information for consumers on how to safely use and handle the chemical. It’ll list things like personal protective measures: Is ventilation required when using the chemical? Do you need special clothing? I don’t think people have a tendency to really adhere to directions on the label. They’ll do a splash of this and not measure it the proper way. Follow the instructions clearly.

Q: Can the size of a home be a factor in how dangerous a chemical can be?

A: I’d say it’s always good to be cautious if you’re concerned that you do have a confined space. Certainly opening up windows if you’re using a household cleaning product is a good idea. Typically, a container label will provide some instructions, too. Even things like oven cleaners, typically, those can be pretty caustic, and they usually have some pretty good instructions on the label in terms of how to ventilate.

Q: Should homeowners be especially concerned about using chemicals around pets?

A: You have to think that pets have access to a lot of portions of our house. Definitely keep them in mind when you’re doing any type of cleaning. They’re going to be in contact with it, for sure. Typically labels are intended for the person using the chemical. It typically doesn’t list pets unless the chemical is used for pets. There are many websites out there that offer less-toxic alternatives for chemicals. The Washington Poison Center is a good resource, too.

Q: How can homeowners learn more about a product to determine if it’s safe for them to use?

A: On the chemical label, there’s typically a contact number for the producer, and they can provide, in addition to the information on the label, a more comprehensive material safety sheet. It’ll list off all of the constituents and typically their quantities. It provides toxicity information. It gets into a lot of detail. Oftentimes, if it’s a well-known manufacturer or brand, they’ll list the material safety sheets on their websites.

Q: If people still have questions about a product, who can they call?

A: We do have here at our Health Department a household and hazardous waste hotline. Certainly people can call if they have specific questions.

Q: Anything else residents should know about safe cleaning practices?

A: We have developed a green cleaning recipe card that we have on our website. It also talks about things to avoid with the use of cleaners, such as keeping cleaners out of the reach of children. Some cleaning products can look and smell like food. Just use caution, especially if they’re chemicals that will be used in the home around children and pets. There may be less-toxic alternatives that can do the job just as well. Using distilled vinegar and warm water makes for a good floor cleaner. Products that were used by our grandparents and great-grandparents are effective, and they’re safe.